Games Primates Play

The evolution and economics of human relationships.

The Wedding Ring and Human Behavior: Current Research and Future Directions

Why some married people don't wear a wedding ring.

Some married people don’t wear a wedding ring. And some Facebook users tell the rest of the world everything about themselves except that they are in a relationship or married.

I am sure there are many good reasons why some married people don’t wear a wedding ring; for example, they may be allergic to gold, silver, or platinum. And the same may be true for those who don’t disclose their relationship status on Facebook.

Allergies aside, a good explanation for some people’s reluctance to advertise their marital or relationship status is that they are still (unofficially) on the mating market and want to keep their options open. Many married men and women who engage in extra-marital affairs, of course, are happy to wear a wedding ring, only to take it off before they go to a party without their spouse. Taking the wedding ring off and putting it back on repeatedly, however, can be risky because sooner or later you will forget to do the right thing with the right person. Living a double life, with and without the wedding ring, also increases the chances that you lose the damn ring and then are forced to make up some awkward story about how this happened. To curb people’s temptation to take off their wedding ring before they go on a date with someone they met online, a company that specializes in manufacturing and selling original gifts, called The Cheeky, has just released on the market an Anti-Cheating Ring (http://thecheeky.com/anti-cheating-ring), which has a negative engraving on the inside such that when you take off the ring, it leaves a mark on the finger’s skin that says “I’m married.”

With or without the engraving, the wedding ring is already supposed to work as an anti-cheating device. It’s a signal meant to inform others that the person who wears the ring is married and already committed to a relationship. All wedding rings look similar because it is important that the signal be recognized for what it is, and not mistaken for a random piece of jewelry. For those of us who study human behavior from an evolutionary perspective, the wedding ring is a fascinating cultural invention that says a lot about human nature and our mating system.

Since the wedding ring has a lot to do with monogamy and commitment, and the risk of betrayal and extramarital affairs, one could think of many studies that evolutionary psychologists might do to compare married people who wear and don’t wear rings in terms of their commitment to their spouse, or their tendency to cheat, or the overall stability and longevity of their marriage (one could also study the mating behavior of people who are not married but wear a wedding ring, and I suspect there are quite a few of them out there). Surprisingly, these studies haven’t been done. After doing a search for evolutionary psychology scientific articles using wedding ring as a key word, I found only one article, published in 2003 in the journal Human Nature. The article reported an experiment conducted by two Swedish researchers, Tobias Uller and Christoffer Johannson, to investigate whether women who have a brief conversation with two strange men, one who wears a wedding ring and the other who doesn’t, report the man with the ring to be more desirable than the other one (my fellow PT blogger Gas Saad discussed this article in this post). The researchers wanted to know whether, when it comes to choosing a man as a potential mate and in the absence of other information, a woman copies the choices made by other women. Since a man wearing a wedding ring has already been chosen as a husband by a woman, while a man without a ring presumably hasn’t and is therefore an unknown entity (or worse, he has been previously considered but discarded as a potential husband), a woman should play safe and choose a man who has a proven track record. In the experiment conducted by Uller and Johansson, however, the women found the men with and without the wedding ring equally desirable, or undesirable. For this being the only published study of the effects of wedding rings on human behavior, its results are rather unexciting.

But there is something else I found on the Internet. Andrew Harrell, a social psychologist at the University of Alberta, conducted a rather bizarre study of people who wear or don’t wear wedding rings. He furtively observed adults with children (estimated to be between one and seven years-old) in supermarkets and compared how often people who did or didn’t wear a wedding ring let the child wander more than 10 feet away in the supermarket. Harrell presented the results of this study at a conference a few years ago. He found that of the 862 adult-child pairs he observed, about 14% of the caretakers lost sight of their charges at least once. However, attractive young men and women without wedding rings lost sight of children significantly more frequently than everybody else (25% and 19% of the time, respectively). Harrell concluded that not wearing a wedding ring, especially if paired with young age and high physical attractiveness, may be an indicator of a lack of a commitment to one's family, including care of the children. In an interview I found on the internet, Harrell speculated that ".. an interest in establishing social, sexual or emotional ties outside of marriage may have the inadvertent consequence of diminishing attentiveness to children" and that ".. it's not surprising that this distraction occurs even in a mundane setting like a supermarket, which is more than a place to purchase bananas and cereal. It can also be a place for social encounters and maybe even a romantic rendezvous."

I can offer this additional piece of evidence in support of Harrell’s interpretation of his results: the character played by actress Elizabeth Shue in my children’s favorite movie Adventures in Babysitting was young, attractive, and didn’t wear a wedding ring: and she let the children she was babysitting wander more than 10 feet away from her many times in the movie, although none of her adventures took place in supermarkets, and therefore may have not been directly related to the potential for extramarital affairs.

So, this is it. This is the current state of research on the wedding ring and human behavior from an evolutionary perspective (if I missed some other study on this topic, I urge the readers of this post to let me know immediately). As for the future directions of this research, I just hope they will be as far away as possible from the previous ones.

Uller T, Johannson LC (2003). Human mate choice and the wedding ring effect: are married men more attractive? Human Nature 14, 267-276.

Absence of wedding ring connected to parental neglect

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Dario Maestripieri, Ph.D., is a professor of comparative human development, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology at the University of Chicago.

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