Human companionship. It’s something that we all crave. In fact, a quick look at Google’s autocomplete shows that two of the top three results for “how to get a” return “girlfriend” and “guy to like you.” It’s pretty clear that sharing our life with someone is something we’d like to do (generally, speaking). So, when I came across some research in this area, I thought I’d contribute to those Google searches with some seemingly helpful data. From the journal article:
Our results show that—among single individuals—engaging in prosocial behavior in any given year was associated with increased odds of finding a partner and entering into a romantic relationship in the following year.
I’ve written about the benefits of prosocial behaviour in a work environment (spend your bonus on your coworkers!), so it’s not entirely surprising to me to see that this same behaviour is also beneficial when it comes to increasing one’s odds of finding a romantic partner. Another way of looking at prosocial behaviour is altruism. Essentially, we’re talking about behaviour where one is attempting to help someone else without expecting something in return. Volunteering is an easy example of this.
You may be wondering about the study’s method. That is, did the researchers guard against the possibility that the reverse is true (entering into romantic relatonships begets more prosocial behaviour). In fact, they did consider this:
We specifically examined whether those individuals who were single at the beginning of a time period and managed to find a partner at the end of the time period were more likely to experience an increase in helping behavior in the meantime than those who remained single. Our results showed that individuals who started a romantic relationship did not experience an increase in helping behavior compared with those who remained single.
So, it looks like the researchers feel pretty confident in their conclusions about volunteering helping to lead one to a romantic relationship. Before you run out to your local Red Cross or Salvation Army, I wanted to offer a different perspective on this research. In particular, I thought I’d look at some of the historical statistics around volunteerism and marriage. That is, if we accept the premise of the research, we might expect to see there to be some covariance between volunteerism and marriage. That is, as marriage goes up, we might expect that volunteerism would also go up. Similarly, as volunteerism goes down, we might expect that volunteerism would go down.
I had a harder time than I thought I might in trying to find data on these two subjects. However, I did come across a couple of things that gave me pause about this research. The first, volunteerism. According to some research by the US government, it looks like volunteerism is up, recently. That is, it looks like the propensity for volunteering is higher than it used to be (see graph). The second, marriage rates. If the initial research I shared about prosocial behaviour is true, we’d expect to see higher marriage rates (than there used to be). Here’s the headline from the Pew Research Center a few years ago: Record Share of Americans Have Never Married. So, it’s probably fair to say that marriage rates are down. This doesn’t bode well for our initial research on prosocial behaviour.
One last thing I wanted to share on this: millennials. There’s been plenty written about millennials, but I want to focus on the two things we’re talking about today: volunteering and marriage. Compared to previous generations at the same age, millennials are far less likely to get married. Millennials also differ from Gen X’ers when it comes to volunteering:
… higher rates of community service and volunteering. I mean, let’s face it, for Gen X, volunteering was a punishment. You know, you did something wrong at college, you do community service. (Laughter) But the Millennials — it’s more of a norm.
It’s quite possible that the effect realized by the initial research on prosocial behaviour is true, but that it’s not big enough to make a dent in some of these bigger statistics. It’s also possible that some of the counterpoints I’ve raised aren’t as analogous as I think they are. Either way, I think the research in prosocial behaviour is important and I certainly hope you take the chance to spend some time “giving without expecting anything in return.”
Stavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2015). A Longitudinal Analysis of Romantic Relationship Formation: The Effect of Prosocial Behavior Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6 (5), 521-527 DOI: 10.1177/1948550614568867