The Economics of Sex

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

Are Women Shallow?

A woman's desire for a wealthy man may have an evolutionary basis.

Do women prefer rich men? Stereotypes have long depicted at least some women as placing too much value on a man's wealth and status rather than his character. Now, a new study further investigates how much truth there is to this supposed bias — and its possible evolutionary underpinnings.

To what degree do women prioritize a man's income when she is considering whether or not to go out with him? Previous research shows that when it comes to short-term dating, both women and men emphasize good looks. But when it comes to long-term dating, women tend to prefer men with a healthy income and high status. Why should this be? It harkens back to our evolutionary past, according to Parental Investment Theory. Compared to men, women can only have few children, so they need to ensure that their brood will have enough material resources to survive. Thus, they look to men who can more easily provide food, safety and protection. In modern terms, this translates into money and status.

The research on the role wealth plays in mating preferences has admittedly produced mixed results, and is often limited by the method of measurement: paper and pencil questionnaires. As social scientists and conventional wisdom will tell you, there can be a big difference between what people say and what people do. How much more consideration would a woman really give a rich, high-status man than his less-affluent peers in a real-life situation? This is the question French researchers Nicolas Gueguen and Lubomir Lamy sought to test.

The investigators devised a clever and rather theatrical experiment, complete with actors, a script, staging, wardrobe and props. They had a male confederate (i.e., an undercover participant) wait in a parked car for an unsuspecting young woman to walk down the street. He then emerged from the vehicle and approached her to solicit a date. But the scientists added a provocative twist. In order to manipulate conspicuous income and social status, the confederate waited for female participants in one of three vehicles of varying value: a new Audi A5 Ambition Luxury (price EUR 58,000 or USD 70,632) for the high-value car; a 1-year-old Renault Mégane (price EUR 24,000 or USD 29,227) for the middle-value car; and a 15-year-old Renault 5 Super Campus (price EUR 800 or USD 974.24) for the low-value car. The investigators wondered, would women be more likely to give their phone number to the guy driving the expensive car?

Six 20-year-old, heterosexual confederates rated as physically appealing by a group of women were recruited for this experiment. The control of attractiveness was used because in a previous study, and perhaps not surprisingly, it was difficult for less attractive confederates to get phone numbers from young women on the street. Thus, these good-looking men were specifically selected to participate in order to offset a high refusal rate and to improve the study's chances of success.

The authors performed the experiment in Vannes, France “on particularly sunny days at the beginning of summer.” They stationed the car in an outdoor parking area near a famous promenade, with the confederates waiting in the driver's seat. They were outfitted in a white shirt, jeans, and sneakers in a style “similar to those most young men wear today.” Each confederate took a turn in the low, medium and high-status car condition, with 30 female participants per condition. Each car was used for one-half day and in random order.

The confederates approached the first unaccompanied young woman in the target age group (18 to 25 years) who strolled by. The women in the study were randomly selected, without regard to physical appeal, dress, height and so forth. Two male observers, perched on a public bench 50 meters from the scene of the interaction, monitored whether or not the confederates violated any procedural rules when selecting female participants. They did not.

The study's procedure unfolded:

“When a potential participant was 2 to 3 meters away from the car, the confederate opened the car door, looked the participant in the eyes and smiled. Then he approached her and said: 'Hello, my name’s Antoine. I just want to say that I think you’re really pretty. I have to go to work now, but I was wondering if you would give me your phone number. I’ll call you later and we can have a drink together somewhere.'”

Ah, the French. The contrivance continued:

“After making his request, the confederate was instructed to wait 10 seconds and to gaze and smile at the participant. If the participant accepted the confederate’s solicitation, the confederate noted down her phone number, said “See you soon,” and left the participant. If the participant refused, the confederate was instructed to say, “Too bad. It’s not my day. Have a nice afternoon!” and to leave the participant.”

So, what did the researchers find? The young women were more likely to give their phone number to a young man who appeared to have more money and elevated status. In the high-status car condition, the confederates could boast getting a young woman's phone number 23.3% of the time. By contrast, the middle-status car condition and the low-status car condition saw 12.8% and 7.8% rates of compliance with the phone number request, respectively. These findings suggest that in real-life situations, women are inclined to give high-status men more of a chance.

The authors are sure to point to limitations in their study. To start, it was a bit ambiguous whether it was looks or money that got the girl. In addition, it was unclear whether these women had short- or long-term mating on their minds. As noted earlier, like men, women tend to value a man's physical attractiveness in short-term dating contexts.

That said, these results remain consistent with prior research demonstrating women's interest in a man's income. It also remains coherent with evolutionary theory: In our ancestral environment, it was to a woman's advantage to mate with a man with resources since he could provide for both her and her children. But the question remains whether this ancient mating strategy effectively translates in our modern world.

And research shows that women aren't the only offenders. In a companion post, I report on how money influences a man's dating requirements.

 

Follow me on twitter: @VinitaMehta2

The Economics of Sex