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.

When there were more men than women, the man expected to spend more money on things like engagement rings, dinners on a date and Valentine's day gifts. "In line with our other studies, men were willing to spend more on these things," White said. "But interestingly women also showed a difference. Women expected more from men when there were more men around."

Male brands

Penna with PPBH said advertisers try to take advantage of research like this when looking at strategy for their clients. "We have a saying we use a lot," he said. "The more you know, the less you guess. And guessing is expensive."

Male-brand advertising tends to use the idea of one man attracting multiple women, Penna said. "One alpha male surrounded by multiple women," he said.

White, however, said this research suggests those ads are not increasing men's competitive feelings. "So they are not making feel like they have to compete with other men to get these women," he said. "Having more women implies there are enough women for everyone to match up with."

Penna said it makes sense. Good brands cost more, but also help people feel more confident. "And if there are more males than females, men are going to look for any edge they can get," he said.

White pointed to the shifting student male/female ratios on college campuses from being predominantly male to predominantly female. "Men are less risk taking when sex ratios are balanced or female biased," White said. "So it might be that men take less risks on a college campus where there are more females than males."

If more males means more financial risks, there may also be implications in boardrooms, Congress and Wall Street. Maybe.

There are more influences in life than just the sex ratio.

For example, White said it appeared there were different patterns in China. At the same time China was becoming more male biased with more males than females, the country was also seeing an increase in the amount of savings. That result flies in the face of the study's findings.

Part of the explanation for the difference may be the different expectations and cultural mating systems, White said. In the U.S. people start with shorter relationships and then enter long-term relationships that even may end in divorce. In China, there is a greater value placed upon having a long-term relationship from the beginning.

But White said it still is a strong influence. "It is good to know what we are being influenced by," he said, "even if it is hard to change these things."

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