For Love and Money: Why Men Spend More When Women Are Few

When women are in short supply, they expect men to pay more for engagement rings, dinner dates and Valentine's Day gifts.

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When women are scarcer, new research finds that men tend to get all impulsive with their money, borrowing more and saving less, in much the same way that a male peacock will shake his tail feathers harder if there aren’t many peahens around.

In Columbus, Ga., for example, there are 1.18 single men for every single woman. The average consumer debt is $3,479 higher there than in Macon, Ga., less than 100 miles away, where there were 0.78 single men for every woman. There are other differences between the two metropoles, but Vladas Griskevicius, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management thinks the sex ratio difference is a significant one.

He and his team conducted a series of experiments in which they had participants read articles that suggested that the sex ratio was skewed one way or another. They were then asked questions about their immediate saving and borrowing plans. Men who read articles suggesting that females were scarce in their locality planned to save an average of 42% less and were willing to borrow 84% more for household expenditures. When men looked at photos with few men and many women and then were asked if they’d rather have $20 now or $30 in a month, more opted for the $20 than men who saw photos with a more gender-balanced group.

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“It makes sense from an economic perspective,” says Griskevicius, because when any resource is in short supply it costs more to get it. “But all these things were happening unconsciously. The men weren’t aware that they were responding in that way.”

And it wasn’t just that the men planned to spend money on women. They also intended to lay out cash for things that would “ward off the rivals and impress the mates,” such as fancier cars, fancier clothes and fancier lodgings.

The women in the study, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, weren’t much moved by a man deficit to throw greenbacks around. “In terms of borrowing and saving, they were ‘whatever,’” says Griskevicius. But when women were in short supply, “they did expect men to pay more for engagement rings, dinner dates and Valentine’s Day gifts.” He declined to use the term “gold-digger,” suggesting instead that women are evolutionarily wired to find a resource-rich partner a better choice for raising a family.

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In a finding that correlated with the clinical studies, the researchers also looked at 130 cities where women were in short supply — Las Vegas, for example — and concluded that they tended to have higher rates of credit card debt. Since Griskevicius works at business school, not at, his takeaway from the study was pretty pragmatic. “Perhaps one of the suggestions for credit card companies is to place a woman surrounded by men in their commercials,” he advises.

It all leaves one to reflect that it’s kind of a shame that men don’t have tails like peacocks. Can you imagine what a shrewd businessperson could make on feathers?