Out of Character

The surprising truths about the liar, cheat, sinner (and saint) lurking in all of us

Fewer Women May Lead Men to Save Less

The economics of sex ratios

As we often note, life is full of long- vs. short-term tradeoffs.  Should you work hard and invest your money or go spend it on a new Ipod right now?  New work by Vladis Griskevicius and colleagues suggests that how we solve this decision might just be influenced by who is around us.  Or, more specifically, the number of women to men -- the available mate ratio for men.

Giskevicius and colleagues are evolutionary psychologists and look for the causes of much of human behavior in variability in ecological conditions.  Sex ratios -- and the mating opportunities they denote -- often constitute an important currency for evolutionary-based models.  Here's their argument in a nutshell:

As the male-biased sex ratio of a society increases, so does competition among men for mates.  This increased competition can be expected to increase men's willingness to focus on short-term expenditures to attract women.

Now, there are a few leaps inherent in this argument with respect to how it might relate to general economic behavior, but the data the researchers provide is both surprising and supportive.  In one study, the team looked for relations between sex ratios in different US cities and measures of economic impulsivity (i.e., numbers of credit cards and levels of debt).  As they predicted, they found that increasing numbers of men relative to women predicted higher levels of short-term spending. 

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Following this up with a clever lab experiment, the team exposed people to pictures of others in their environment while subtly manipulating the percentages of men and women.  What they found was rather startling.  Being exposed to a greater male-biased sex ratio led male participants to engage in greater temporal discounting -- that is, they were much more short-term focused in their economic decisions.  The men in these conditions were willing to take smaller monetary rewards today as opposed to returning at a later time for a much greater monetary reward.

Think of this the next time you see a picture of the NYSE floor and its preponderance of male traders . . . .

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David DeSteno, Ph.D., directs the Social Emotions Group at Northeastern University.

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