Last week, a panhandler was arrested for the “vicious mugging” of a retired surgeon inside the Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia. Video stills that the church released from the security camera show Darcy Jones attacking the 79-year-old man in the vestibule and making off with his money.
Jones mugged Dr. Peter Collins because he knew the doctor to be an easy mark. Collins had given the panhandler $5 a day for the last four days on the way in to morning Mass. On Friday, he was running late when he saw Jones but promised to give him a fiver when the service was over. Jones met him in the church and Collins paid him. Then Jones demanded more from Collins, and took it.
The mugger’s motives in this are easy to guess at: greed, hunger, self-preservation, perhaps drug addiction. His hasty behavior brings to mind the farmer that foolishly killed his gold egg-laying goose. But what motivated the victim, Dr. Collins, to give the panhandler money — and a significant amount of money at that — in the first place? According to a recent article in the British newsweekly the Economist, he probably wanted to get laid.
The piece, titled “Blatant benevolence and conspicuous consumption,” is supposed to be a report from the behavioral science trenches on the recent work of psychology Profs. Geoffrey Miller and Vladas Griskevicius, of the universities of New Mexico and Arizona. It’s really the latest salvo in the all-out assault, by ideologically motivated economists, game theorists, and evolutionary psychologists, against the possibility of altruism or selfless sacrifice.
In this case, the Economist appropriates Miller’s and Griskevicius’s work to argue not only that most men have sex on the brain, but that that’s about all there is to the human mind. You see, all of those “mental processes which are uniquely human, such as language and the ability to make complicated art[i]facts, evolved originally for sexual display.”
Those processes have made possible the development of civilization, but their current uses, the magazine argues, still have close parallels in nature. Peacocks fan their feathers to attract peahens; men create their own fans with dollar bills in order to find dates. Spending money on conspicuous consumer goods like sports cars, expensive watches, tailored suits, and wing-tipped shoes is one way of sending a message that the ladies will pick up on.
That women tend to gravitate toward men who flaunt their money is hard to dispute and also hard to get worked up about. But the magazine uses data from three surveys that the psychologists conducted to declare charity “just as ‘selfish’ as self-indulgence.”
The connection sounds like the set up for a bad joke: What do buying a Porsche and giving money to a soup kitchen have in common? Answer: “[B]oth involve the profligate deployment of resources.”
Miller and Griskevicius had two test groups. Members of the first group — the “romantically primed” group — were shown pictures of attractive members of the opposite sex and made to write descriptions of a “perfect date” with these lovelies before taking the surveys. Members of the second group had to make due with photos of buildings and an assignment to write about the weather.
Both groups were then given a series of hypothetical possibilities. Say you have $5,000 in the bank. How much do you spend and what do you spend it on? Those men fresh from writing about the perfect date had no trouble thinking of flashy ways to blow their “Monopoly money.” Those men who had just finished writing about how raindrops keep falling on their heads were less likely to spend it all or to exhaust it in on flashy goods.
Then the psychologists asked if their subjects would be willing to give some of that imaginary money to charity. They found that romantically primed men “were happy to chip in extravagantly.” Those men were also more inclined to “act heroically,” especially if the danger was “life-threatening.” The non-romantic group, on the other hand, wasn’t quick with promises of handouts or heroics.
The conclusions that the Economist drew from this will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever watched with the five card stud down-with-charity game in action. I’ll see your —
“Only when it counts sexually are men profligate…”
— and raise you one —
“Giving money to charity is thus more akin to conspicuous consumption than it is to blatant benevolence.”
— and leave some of that “Darwinian balance” as a tip for the dealer.
Like most of the pieces in this genre, the British journal trots out the latest bit of tentative research to prove that what pretends to be selflessness must really be self-interest, hypocritically dressed up as virtue. It ignores alternative explanations for the results — such as, maybe the control group was bored? It writes off history as unrigorous — after all, why pay attention to cases like Dr. Collins when we can look at lab results instead?
The Economist also ignores a mountain of evidence for why people choose to give money away to strangers. According to the best available research on the subject, people give to the poor because they were brought up to believe that’s the right thing to do.