BY STEVE RUDOLPH
The perception that women are scarce leads men to become impulsive, save less, and increase borrowing, according to new research from Assistant Professor of Marketing Vladas Griskevicius.
“What we see in other animals is that when females are scarce, males become more competitive. They compete more for access to mates,” he says. “How do humans compete for access to mates? What you find across cultures is that men often do it through money, through status, and through products.”
To test their theory that sex ratio affects economic decisions, Griskevicius and his co-researchers had participants read news articles that described their local population as either having more men or more women. They were then asked to indicate how much money they would save each month from a paycheck, as well as how much they would borrow with credit cards for immediate expenditures. When led to believe women were scarce, the savings rates for men decreased by 42 percent. Men were also willing to borrow 84 percent more money each month.
In another study, participants saw photo arrays of men and women that either had more men, more women, or were neutral. After looking at the photographs, participants were asked to choose between receiving some money tomorrow or a larger amount in a month. When women were scarce in the photos, men were much more likely to take an immediate $20 rather than wait for $30 in a month.
According to Griskevicius, participants were unaware that sex ratios were having any effect on their behavior. Merely seeing more men than women automatically led men to simply be more impulsive and want to save less while borrowing more to spend on immediate purchases.
“Economics tells us that humans make decisions by carefully thinking through our choices; that we’re not like animals,” he says. “It turns out we have a lot in common with other animals. Some of our behaviors are much more reflexive and subconscious. We see that there are more men than women in our environment and it automatically changes our desires, our behaviors, and our entire psychology.”
“The Financial Consequences of Too Many Men: Sex Ratio Effects on Savings, Borrowing, and Spending” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Co-authors of the study include Joshua Tybur (VU University Amsterdam), Joshua M. Ackerman (M.I.T.), Andrew Delton and Theresa Robertson (University of California, Santa Barbara), and Andrew E. White (Arizona State University).
Research Implications for Marketers and Society
Whereas previous research has found that merely seeing an attractive woman in advertising would make a man more aggressive or make a man more interested in conspicuously consuming, this study suggests it may not be that simple. According to the findings, whether a woman is alone or whether she’s surrounded by many or few men can have a great impact on the reaction it elicits.
Griskevicius says the effects of sex ratio go beyond marketing and impact all sorts of behavior. He cites other studies showing the strong correlation between male-biased sex ratios and aggressive behavior.
“We’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to financial behavior,” says Griskevicius. “One of the troubling implications of sex ratios for the world in general is that it’s about more than just money. It’s about competition and survival.”