Too many men: Sex ratio affects men's financial behavior

Published: Thursday, March 15 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

COLUMBUS, Ga. — If you want proof that too many men leads to trouble, take a look at Columbus, Ga.

In Columbus there are 118 single men for every 100 single women. Social psychologists would describe that condition as a male-biased sex ratio — meaning there are more men than women and also meaning, no doubt, that it is harder for a guy to get a date.

Contrast Columbus with Macon, Ga. Macon is only about 95 miles away according to Google Maps. There are 78 single men for every 100 single women — a sex ratio with a female bias.

The trouble is the average consumer debt in male-biased Columbus is $3,479 higher than in female-biased Macon.

A new study explores how perceptions of sex ratio subconsciously affect financial behavior. Where you have more males than females, men save less and their borrowing and spending go up. This finding may help explain financially risky behavior in communities and institutions that have more men than women. It also has some has implications for education, advertising and business.

At its heart, it is about mating and mate competition, said Andrew E. White, a graduate student at Arizona State University and a co-author of "The Financial Consequences of Too Many Men: Sex Ratio Effects on Saving, Borrowing, and Spending," which was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "It is the competition between men that is at play here," he said.

In addition to Macon and Columbus, the study looked at more than 120 cities across the United States (in Salt Lake City there are 119 single men for every 100 single women) and found the correlation held: The more men, the more credit cards and the higher the amount of debt.

"In these areas where there are more men, they have to compete with one another for access to women — who are scarcer and the valuable resource in these areas," White said. "So they are going to have to compete with one another to attract these women."

Taking risks

One way men compete is to take risks — financial risks. They try to be flashier to get more attention, White said.

Chuck Penna, CEO and founding partner of advertising agency Penna Powers Brian Haynes put it simply. "Men will spend more money to be attractive to the opposite sex," he said.

But something like sex ratio isn't always obvious. Men don't sit down and think, "Golly, there are more men around in my community than women — I guess I'll max out my credit card."

White said a lot of research in the past few years shows people can be influenced by different factors that they are not really aware of. "The research we did is another example of that because people are not usually consciously aware of the sex ratio around them," he said.

The study included several experiments to verify sex ratios had an influence on financial behavior. In one experiement, the participants were told to look at a group of photographs that represented the local population. Some participants were shown photographs with more men than women. Others were shown the opposite. To make sure the participants understood the ratio, they were asked to tally up the number of men and women in the photographs. Afterwards, the participants were offered some money they could have "now" or they could wait and get more money later.

"We found when we primed the men with the idea there were a lot of men around, the men wanted the money now," White said. "Women did not show the same effect."

Other experiments in the study found similar results. When men perceived there were more men around than women, they changed their behavior. They would save less money. They would be more likely to borrow money.

Women were more consistent.

Spending expectations, however, saw changes in both sexes.

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