The Economics of Sex

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

Dating: Why it Really Is a Numbers Game

An overabundance of men in a population has financial consequences

What happens when there are too many or too few men on the marriage market? According to a recent study, the economy can fluctuate wildly.

Imagine a map of the United States that highlights the places where the sex ratio is skewed in favor of either men or women. Across the country, gender balance can vary dramatically by region. Denver and Las Vegas tilt heavily toward men. By contrast, Birmingham and Peoria abound with women. Research has exposed that such imbalances spur shifts in mating dynamics. Now, a team of scientists have superimposed another layer of change that results from biased sex ratios onto this image: consumer behavior.

A study led by Vladis Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota has found that an overflow of men in the dating pool can drive their consumer behavior down the drain. The authors present a striking example between the cities of Macon, Georgia and Columbus, Georgia. Separated by less than 100 miles, these communities have common cultural and economic milieus. When it comes to finances, however, the residents of each city have widely different stories to tell. Inhabitants of Columbus can bemoan an average consumer debt that is astonishingly higher than those who call Macon their home — a difference of $3,479 per person. What might explain this relative spending spree by individuals in Columbus by comparison to their neighbors to the east?

The scientists looked to an unsuspected culprit: the balance of single men to women in each of these cities. In Macon, there is a shortage of available males, with only .78 men for every woman. Meanwhile, Columbus is teeming with single suitors, with 1.18 men for every woman. But, how does the factor of sex ratios figure in?

Investigations into how gender imbalances shape behavior begin with studies on animals, specifically focusing on the proportion of males and females of reproductive age. From this research, two overarching findings have emerged. First, most male mammals are more affected by the availability of mates than are their female counterparts. Second, the balance of males to females influences the intensity of both mating competition and effort. Animal studies overwhelmingly show that a scarcity of females pushes males to expend increased energy on both of these pursuits.

The research on gender imbalances in humans have borne out similar results as those in our animal relatives, unveiling intimate associations with mating and parenting behaviors. For example, an oversupply of women is linked to decreased marriage rates, more out-of-wedlock births, and diminished paternal investment. Conversely, a surplus of men reveals opposite trends: increased marriage rates, fewer out-of-wedlock births, and heightened paternal investment. These modulating patterns demonstrate that when there is an abundance of men in a given populace, women will conform to their typical relationship desires, and vice versa. For example, having numerous female rivals may pressure a woman to soften her standards when choosing a partner.

While the influence of gender balance on mating and parenting has been firmly established, the scientists reasoned that it might have a far more pervasive influence. Studies show that economic decisions and consumer spending are bound up with mating effort. And as mating efforts intensify, so do a man's financial impulsivity and consumption of flashy products. Thus, the investigators surmised that as men fiercely compete against an excess of rivals for the affections of women, the need to advertise wealth through spending and consumerism becomes increasingly urgent. The scientists therefore expected that men would be financially impetuous when faced with a male-biased skew, in both the real world and the laboratory.

In order to untangle the impact of sex ratio on financial decision making, Griskevicius and his colleagues conducted a series of four studies. They first started by examining how gender proportions in 134 cities across the United States might inflame two symptoms of financial impulsivity: credit-card ownership and consumer debt. Indeed, as the number of men in a municipality rose, so did the number of credit cards and the amount of debt people carried. These results support the idea that a male-biased population stokes the fervor of mating competition and effort among men, which in turn makes them more economically rash.

In a second study, the researchers asked 205 men and women, aged 18 to 36, to view photographs that featured either more men, more women, or were neutral. They compensated the participants $10 and then presented them with a choice: They could either receive a second payment the following day, or a significantly larger sum of money in one month. An analysis of the participants' preferences uncovered a provocative result. When the photographs were populated by more women, men tended to postpone remuneration for a month so that they could take advantage of the higher rate of return. Yet when males outnumbered females in the images, the men opted to cash out immediately. In other words, they were more impulsive.

To assess whether this study captured a “real effect,” Griskevicius and his team crafted a third experiment that sought real-world similitude. Rather than have participants gaze at images, the investigators instructed them to read manufactured news articles (ostensibly from the Chicago Tribune), that “reported” on whether more women or more men lived in the participant's community. Then they queried the volunteers about how much money they wanted to save from a paycheck each month and how much money they would like to borrow from a credit card for immediate expenses.

What did the researchers find? In keeping with their previous findings, the men were more financially impetuous when they believed that their gender outnumbered women in their locality. Under this condition, their desire to save plunged by 42 percent and their desire to borrow rose by a steep 84 percent.

Yet a question still dangled: What about the women? How did their behavior change in reaction to gender imbalances? A fourth study (also involving the doctored news articles) revealed that they actually didn't change their financial habits. However, they did revise their ideas about how men should spend their money. When women thought that they lived in a community in which they were a member of the majority gender, they believed men should spend more on traditional tokens of love, such as a Valentine's Day gift, a romantic dinner and an engagement ring.

The findings of this study offer a practical strategy to the dating game: If you want to increase your odds at winning, live someplace where your gender is in short supply. Perhaps this is an overly prosaic approach for a matter of the heart, but it might just work.

 

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More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults.  She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. 

Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.

 

Journal reference:

The financial consequences of too many men: Sex ratio effects on saving, borrowing, and spending.Griskevicius, Vladas; Tybur, Joshua M.; Ackerman, Joshua M.; Delton, Andrew W.; Robertson, Theresa E.; White, Andrew E. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 102(1), Jan 2012, 69-80. doi: 10.1037/a0024761

 

The Economics of Sex