The Economics of Sex

Sexual freedom and economic theory. What does it mean for men and women?

Are Men Shallow?

A wealthy man's high dating standards may have an evolutionary basis.

Does a man with money think he's a more worthy catch? Stereotypes have long depicted rich men as coveted romantic partners. Now, a new study further investigates how much truth there is to this supposed bias — and its evolutionary underpinnings.

Do rich men have higher dating standards than their less wealthy peers? One need look no further than Hollywood and Wall Street for proof. Indeed, studies show that having resources influences a man's romantic outlook. They also reinforce Parental Investment Theory, which maintains that the relative investment of ancestral females and males in parenting ultimately led to divergent mating preferences between the sexes. Women invest “intrinsic” physiological resources, through pregnancy and lactation, whereas men invest “extrinsic” resources, such as food, shelter and protection. Accordingly, research demonstrates that when it comes to dating and relationships, women tend to gravitate towards material resources, while men tend to be drawn in by beauty — which, evolutionarily speaking, signals health and fertility.

Recent research also reveals that the mating mindset shifts a man's stance towards money, the modern version of resources. The results are intriguing. When men were primed to have mating on the mind, they spent more on luxury items. And in the company of women, they were more likely to exalt the importance of money and wealth. Males also demonstrate a greater appreciation of resources after viewing pictures of women rated as attractive versus unattractive. Similarly, men have been found to be more generous and to donate more money to charity if they know they are under the watchful eye of a pretty woman. What's more, these findings held true for males, but not for females.

In light of this work, Jose Yong and Norman Li of Singapore Management University were curious about the role of resources in romantic exchanges between men and women. More specifically, since women prioritize men’s social status and wealth, the competition for mates might boost men's investment and generosity in order to successfully court women. Thus, money may be a means by which men can up their dating game. In turn, it would follow that men would show a greater sensitivity to the availability of a significant amount of cash and readapt their mating strategies as a matter of course. But Yong and Li took things one provocative step further. They predicted that mating preferences are so deeply embedded in our minds and bodies that mere environmental cues and physical sensations would be enough to change them.

The scientists postulated a trio of hypotheses. First, they expected that the sheer sensation of money notes would lead men — but not women— to raise their minimum dating requirements. Second, they predicted that women would have higher dating standards than men. Since females invest much more in parenthood than males do, the theory goes that they should be choosier when selecting a mate. Third, and in keeping with prior research on mate preferences, they contended that men would emphasize physical attractiveness, while women would emphasize resources.

To test these predictions, Yong and Li primed participants by exposing them to one of three resource conditions: Small Resources (52 $2 notes), Large Resources (52 $50 notes) or the Control (52 blank strips of paper whose dimensions conformed to money notes). To strengthen the prime, participants were asked a set of questions about their specific lot (e.g., how many notes were in the stack of money or paper) and to perform some calculations and measurements.

After the manipulation, participants completed a mating standards survey about their lowest requirements on physical attractiveness, creativity, personability and social level for a date. For good measure, these trials were run individually in private booths. By the study's end, the sample was comprised of 81 women (average age 20.7 years) and 72 men (average age of 22.5 years).

What did the researchers find? The men who handled the most valuable bundle of money had the highest dating standards. In particular, their minimum requirement on comeliness for a date was significantly raised. By contrast, women’s mating standards did not change across the three resource conditions. The analyses also revealed that women had significantly higher mating requirements than men, while men upped their mating standards to reach that of women only when primed with the $50 notes in the Large Resources condition. And, as expected, men valued physical attractiveness more than women, whereas women cared more about creativity and social level.

The authors do point out the limitations of this experiment. For instance, participants were surveyed about their requirements for a date as opposed to a relationship. Mating standards can and do change given the context. In addition, since this study was comprised primarily of Chinese students in Singapore, the scientists recommend that it be replicated with other populations with respect to culture and socioeconomic status.

Though these findings highlight a perhaps unflattering component of male psychology, they remain remarkably consistent with both theory and research. Yet it may just be that these age old stereotypes about men with resources persist because mating strategies are, quite simply, ancient. In this sense, the data suggest, humans are still very much an evolving species.

And research shows that men aren't the only offenders. In a companion post, I report on women's desire for a wealthy and high-status man.

 

Follow me on twitter: @VinitaMehta2

The Economics of Sex