Current work on cooperation is focused on the theory of reciprocal altruism. However, reciprocity is just one way of getting a return on an investment in altruism and is difficult to apply to many examples. Reciprocity theory addresses how animals respond dynamically to others so as to cooperate without being exploited. I discuss how introducing differences in individual generosity together with partner choice into models of reciprocity can lead to an escalation in altruistic behaviour. Individuals may compete for the most altruistic partners and non–altruists may become ostracized. I refer to this phenomenon as competitive altruism and propose that it can represent a move away from the dynamic responsiveness of reciprocity. Altruism may be rewarded in kind, but rewards may be indirectly accrued or may not involve the return of altruism at all, for example if altruists tend to be chosen as mates. This variety makes the idea of competitive altruism relevant to behaviours which cannot be explained by reciprocity. I consider whether altruism might act as a signal of quality, as proposed by the handicap principle. I suggest that altruistic acts could make particularly effective signals because of the inherent benefits to receivers. I consider how reciprocity and competitive altruism are related and how they may be distinguished.