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Study: Men spend if women are few

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / January 23, 2012
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In the animal world, an overabundance of males can increase competition and skirmishes among would-be suitors seeking scarce partners. Now, a study finds hints that in the human world, too, a male-female imbalance affects complex mating behaviors, causing men to spend their paychecks faster, take on more debt, and increase the amount they would spend to woo a woman.

Economic behavior is clearly complex; it was not heartsick overspending on diamond rings and dinner dates that triggered the global recession. But the new work, published in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is part of a growing body of research that examines evolutionary factors that contribute to everyday consumer decisions.

“Different numbers of men and women trigger a competitive motive, a desire to compete,’’ said Joshua Ackerman, an assistant professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a coauthor of the paper. “The core underlying theme, the evolutionary piece to this, is having different numbers of men and women signals different opportunities for romantic partners,’’

Although, he added, “It’s not that people are consciously thinking this stuff.’’

Sex ratios have been extensively examined by biologists, with studies looking at how different proportions of males and females affect behavior in animals that range from the gray mouse lemur to the European bitterling, a freshwater fish.

Human studies have tended to study gender imbalance and its effect on behaviors such as aggression. But in the new study, the researchers gathered data from 134 US cities, including the sex ratios of unmarried people, average consumer debt, and the number of credit cards per person.

The researchers found that in cities that had more unmarried men than women, there tended to be greater average personal debt and more credit cards per person.

This overall trend, however, was just a correlation and did not suggest a male-female imbalance played a causal role - or rule out other explanations for the differences in debt.

The average debt level and number of credit cards were not broken down by sex, making it impossible to know the specific role single men were playing in the trend. So the researchers conducted a set of laboratory experiments to try and pinpoint the possible origins of the financial differences.

They used various means to prime research participants with the sense they were in an environment dominated by either men or women.

In one experiment, participants were led to believe they were participating in a memory task. They read 500-word news stories about the local community being either male- or female-dominated and then were told they would be asked a series of unrelated financial questions, which were supposedly just to pass enough time to cause their memories to fade.

But researchers were most interested in their answers to a few questions: how much money they would spend from a monthly paycheck and how much they would borrow.

The males who had read the article “Fewer Women for Every Man for Today’s Students’’ said they would borrow 84 percent more money each month. They also opted to save 42 percent less per month. Sex ratio did not affect women’s financial behavior in the experiment.

In another experiment, the researchers tested how much people expected men to spend on “mating-related products.’’ They found that in the male-dominated experimental condition, people of both sexes expected men to pay more to woo women. Men were expected to spend $6.01 more on a Valentine’s Day present, $1.51 more for a dinner entrée, and $368 more on an engagement ring.

Jill Sundie, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas San Antonio, who was not involved in the research, said the results provided fresh insight into an evolutionary force that influences consumer behavior.

“The effects are not enormous, meaning that if we really want to understand why someone decides to run up credit card debt or not,’’ you can’t just focus on the availability of potential mates, Sundie said.

“Most of the research we do in consumer behavior is not about explaining the whole thing - it’s looking at individual factors that might have an effect on certain kinds of circumstances. . . . It doesn’t tell the whole story, but it tells a novel part of the story, that might get people thinking.’’

The authors, a team that included researchers from five institutions across the country, also hope to study other cultures - specifically in China, where male-biased imbalances are extreme. There are more men than women in China, and there is more overall saving there. However, the authors suggested that is because the tradition of paying a “bride price’’ to the woman’s family is important, and so saving might be more beneficial for a man seeking a partner.

Geoffrey Miller, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, said the study is innovative and that sex ratios have been largely overlooked when thinking about consumer behavior.

He added that he was glad to see the authors draw attention to the important issue of sex imbalances in China, something that he sees as potentially frightening given what is known about male-dominated populations in the animal world, where aggression and fighting become more common.

“The more worrying thing, to me, is that with too many males per female, you could get more aggression,’’ Miller said.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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