Evolutionary Psychology and Corporate Philanthropy

This interesting item from the Aug 4 edition of The Economist (Blatant benevolence and conspicuous consumption) is about the evolutionary psychology of altruism. It reports the results of an intriguing study by researchers at Arizona State, suggesting that there are gender-based differences in the types of altruistic acts that men & women engage in. The researchers started with the question, what motivates cases of altruism where there doesn’t seem to be any obvious payoff.

To investigate this question, the researchers made an interesting link. At first sight, helping charities looks to be at the opposite end of the selfishness spectrum from conspicuous consumption. Yet they have something in common: both involve the profligate deployment of resources.

That is characteristic of the consequences of sexual selection. An individual shows he (or she) has resources to burn—whether those are biochemical reserves, time or, in the human instance, money—by using them to make costly signals. That demonstrates underlying fitness of the sort favoured by evolution. Viewed this way, both conspicuous consumption and what the researchers call “blatant benevolence” are costly signals. And since they are behaviours rather than structures, and thus controlled by the brain, they may be part of the mating mind.

The study further suggested that men tend to prefer to give money, whereas women tend to prefer to give their time. There’s an explanation for this in evolutionary terms, based on what men and women need to display in order to attract a mate: “what women want in a partner is material support while men require self-sacrifice.” So, to attrace mates, men show they can spend, and women show they can care. (For those of you not versed in evolutionary psychology, please please note that this kind of reasoning does not imply that these are conscious motives or that they are universal and overwhelming. It’s just a way of saying that psychological mechanisms are likely to have evolutionary back-stories, just as physical traits do.)

OK, so the question: what does this imply about corporate philanthropy? After all, most CEO’s are men. Are the motives attributed to males in the study cited above affecting corporate giving? What’s really motivating corporate largesse? And an interesting empirical question: does the philanthropy of companies headed by men differ in kind from the philanthropy of companies headed by women? And should shareholders be worried that CEO’s might be making philanthropic decisions rooted neither in a desire to generate goodwill in the community nor in a genuine interest in doing good, but in ancient procreative drives?

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