Part II:

Men pay sometimes immense amounts of money for a woman’s company, in the form of brideprice and shorter-term “escort services." In my last post, I linked the economics of bride price and of prostitution to the biological concept of “differential parental investment.” But I also pointed out a puzzle from that perspective.  Although most of the world’s societies have had bride-price, a few have had the custom of dowry—a payment made by the bride’s family at the time of a wedding. If women have all the reproductive resources, why would a female ever have to pay?  

What are men and women buying? 

Ben Mezrich wrote the book “Bringing Down the House,” about a group of MIT nerds who won millions playing Black Jack in Las Vegas. In researching the book, he interviewed a woman named April, who had worked as a stripper at one of Las Vegas’s top strip clubs, where she made several thousand dollars a night as a lap dancer. If she made additional “house calls,” she was able to make up to three thousand dollars an hour!  At the time of the interview, however, April was 25 years old, and no longer able to command such a high price for her company. As Mezrich put it, “she was already considered old in her line of work.”

Men’s preference for youth and beauty is not limited to the patrons of strip clubs and escort services. Working with my colleagues such as Rich Keefe and Bram Buunk, I have found that older men around the world are inclined to seek younger women as mates—a preference that is even more pronounced for sexual partners. It wasn’t about relative power, incidentally. Working with Cristina Gabrielidis, we found that teenage boys were attracted to older women (of college age), despite the boys’ painful awareness that they were powerless to elicit even the slightest interest from those desirable 20-year-old women. From an evolutionary perspective, however, there is a clear explanation for why old men and teenage boys share the same attraction—women in their early twenties are most fertile. Even for a man who says he does not want children, his brain is wired up to respond to those features as desirable, because his ancestors were most successful at reproducing when they spent their reproductive efforts trying to win the affections of women with those features. 

Bride price around the world seems to track reproductive value and fertility, with higher prices for younger, healthier, more physically attractive, virgin brides, and often no price paid for a woman who has already had children. 

When women pay dowries, does it work the same way? No. Dowry is higher for men who come from high status families, and who are highly educated. This makes sense given the numerous findings on women’s mate preferences, such as Norm Li’s economic budget studies demonstrating that women place priority on a man’s social status. 

Dowry is different from brideprice in several other ways. As Shalini Randeria and Leela Visaria note in an article on the “sociology of bride-price and dowry:” 

"Bride-price is a transmission of goods from the kin of the groom to the kin of the bride in return for which certain rights in the bride are transferred... Dowry, however, is not the mirror-opposite of bride-price, which would technically be groom-price. Strictly speaking, dowry is property given to the bride by her kin, to take with her to her husband's family... dowry is ... property which belongs to the woman, and which may be controlled jointly by her husband, who does not have the right to dispose of it."

Cultural variation and evolutionary economics: The Coloring Book Mind meets Deep Rationality

Dowry was not found in traditional societies, but only arose in the large nation-states such as those in China, India, and Europe. Those societies differed from hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies in having substantial accumulated wealth and inherited status. By paying a dowry, a woman’s family makes an investment in the bride’s future family, investing in a marriage to a man who had status or education

In modern Asia, families continue to place high value on their educated sons, who are well-positioned to carry on the family’s status and wealth. Stemming from this value on sons, the high costs of dowry may have also contributed to the use of selective abortion of female fetuses. This in turn has led to a biased sex ratio, with more men of marriage age than women. This is especially true in rural areas, as desirable young women have selectively migrated to urban areas. As a consequence, bride-price has been increasing. The economic dynamics of all this continues to unfold, as men from Taiwan and South Korea are willing to pay increasingly large sums for wives from Vietnam. Now, men in Vietnam are complaining about their inability to purchase brides, which may in turn be increasing the premium on female children. 

All of this highlights two critical points: First, human cultural variation is not arbitrary, but is intimately linked to human nature, and calibrated to variations in the local social and physical ecology. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the mind is not a blank slate, but more like a coloring book, with some fairly solid lines laid down by our ancestral heritage. Second, economic decisions are also non-arbitrary, but reflect an underlying deep rationality. 

Douglas Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity, are revolutionizing our view of human nature

Related blogs

Deep Rationality: Evolutionary psychology meets behavioral economics.

The Mind as a Coloring Book: Universal mechanisms yield surprising cultural diversity. 

Does a woman’s company always cost more than a man’s? Behavioral economics meets bride-price, dowry, and prostitution.


Anderson, S. (2007).  The economics of dowry and brideprice. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 21, 151-174.

Belanger, D., & Tran, G.L. (2011). The impact of transnational migration on gender and marriage in sending communities of Vietnam.  Current Sociology, 59, 59-77.

Buunk, B.P., Dijkstra, P., Fetchenhauer, D., & Kenrick, D.T. (2002). Age and gender differences in mate selection criteria for various involvement levels. Personal Relationships, 9, 271-278.

Kenrick, D.T., Griskevicius, V., Sundie, J.M., Li, N.P., Li, Y.J. & Neuberg, S.L. (2009). Deep rationality: The evolutionary economics of decision-making. Social cognition, 27, 764-785.

Kenrick, D.T., Gabrielidis, C., Keefe, R.C., & Cornelius, J. (1996).  Adolescents'  age preferences for dating partners: Support for an evolutionary model of life-history strategies. Child Development, 67, 1499-1511.

Kenrick, D.T., & Keefe, R.C. (1992).  Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in mating strategies.  (target article)  Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 15, 75- 91.

Kenrick, D.T., Nieuweboer, S., & Buunk, A.P. (2010). Universal mechanisms and cultural diversity: Replacing the blank slate with a coloring book. Pp. 257-271 in M. Schaller, A. Norenzayan, S. Heine, T. Yamagishi, & T. Kameda (eds.) Evolution, culture, and the human mind. New York: Psychology Press.

Li, N.P., Bailey, J. M., Kenrick, D.T., & Linsenmeier, J.A. (2002). The necessities and luxuries of mate preferences: Testing the trade-offs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82,947-955.

Li, N.P., & Kenrick, D.T. (2006). Sex similarities and differences in preferences for short-term mates: What, whether, and why. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 468-489.

Mezrich, B. (2002). 21: Bringing Down the House.  New York: Free Press.

Randeria, S., & Visaria, L. (1984). Sociology of bride-price and dowry. Economic and Political Weekly, 15, 648-652

Source of photo: South Asian wedding. Wikipedia. 

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