The average American husband-to-be will spend around $6000 on an engagement ring for his partner. Unlike other large purchases, such as a house or car, an engagement ring serves little practical purpose. You can’t live it in, eat it, or use it to get from A to B. Romantics may claim that an engagement ring is a token of love, but to those with a more cold-hearted scientific perspective it seems clear that an engagement ring is a costly signal of a man’s (and it usually is a man’s) willingness to commit.
Dropping thousands of dollars on a pretty but otherwise useless gift is not something a man can do with any regularity, and so, when a man whips out a rock the size of Gibraltar and asks his beloved to marry him, she can be sure he’s serious.
There has been some effort (mostly on the part of diamond retailers) to suggest that the amount of money a man should spend on a ring depends on his salary. You may have heard the rule of thumb that a ring should cost two months’ salary (it used to be one month). But, in the real world, the cost of a ring is dependent on much more.
For one, there are two parties to the exchange: men may have an idea of how much they want to spend, but women have their own ideas and may expect a ring of a certain value (one-third of women are involved in choosing their own ring). In 2018 I posted about a study showing that the amount that a man was willing to spend on an engagement ring depended on the beauty of his beloved: more attractive women ‘deserved’ more valuable rings. Women, in turn, demanded more valuable rings if their partner was less physically attractive (studs could get away with gifting diamonds that were virtually microscopic).
In a recent study, a team of psychologists from Nipissing University in Ontario, Canada, sought to determine whether engagement ring expenditure depends on another variable: the abundance of eligible bachelors in the dating pool.
The theory: If there are plenty of fish in the sea, women can afford to be choosier. If women are choosier, men have to compete more fiercely for their affections. One way men might compete is by investing more in their partners, including spending big on that most conspicuous of gifts, the engagement ring.
The idea that our love lives are influenced by environmental factors such as mate abundance is not so far-fetched as it may seem. Previous research has shown that experimentally manipulating research participants’ perceptions of disease prevalence or the safety of their environment can affect how they judge the attractiveness of others.
Ashley Locke, Jessica Desrochers, and Steven Arnocky of Nipissing University recruited 205 unmarried female volunteers. The women were randomly allocated to one of two groups: women in the “mate abundance” group were asked to read a bogus magazine article about how easy it is to find a good-quality partner and that, after splitting from a partner, most people are able to find a better partner quite quickly; women in the “mate scarcity” group read a version of the magazine article that presented the opposite point of view — that good partners are hard to find.
Most of us are exposed to so much news and social media that it might seem as though a single magazine article would have little effect on our point of view. However, past research has confirmed that this method is a reliable way of persuading volunteers that good partners truly are abundant or scarce.
After reading the article, the women were asked to imagine that a long-term partner had proposed to them. What would be the smallest engagement ring they would be satisfied with? The women were shown images of five rings that were identical except for the size and value of the diamond: from 0.5 carats ($500) to 1.5 carats ($9000).
As expected, Locke and her colleagues found that women who had been primed to think that mates were abundant tended to select a larger ring than women who had been primed to think that mates were scarce. This suggests that women do expect more costly signals of commitment from men when they (women) perceive that they have more romantic options.
Men may be heartened to learn that the ring most frequently selected by women in the Nipissing study, regardless of whether they were in the abundant or scarce group, was the cheapest ring on offer. An absolute boulder of a diamond is, in most cases, unnecessary — no matter what De Beers might say.
Facebook image: Alexander_Magnum/Shutterstock
Locke, A., Desrochers, J., & Arnocky, S. (2020). Induced mate abundance increases women’s expectations for engagement ring size and cost. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 6, 188–194. doi:10.1007/s40806–019–00214-z