Lady Shortage Makes Men Spend All Their Money (and Borrow More)

A new study purports to find that scarcity of women turns dudes into spendthrifts. So should sex ratio be a new economic indicator?

According to ScienceDaily, psychologist Vladas Griskevicius and his team had guys read articles saying they outnumbered women in their area. Then they asked them about financial decisions — how much they'd save from their next paycheck, and how much they'd be willing to borrow. Reading about a lady shortage dropped their willingness to save by 42%, and upped the amount they said they'd borrow by 84%. In another experiment, the researchers simply had to look at photos with varying numbers of men and women. Then they asked the men if they'd rather have $20 now or $30 in a month. When the photos had fewer women, the guys were more likely to jump at the immediate $20. Women apparently were also affected — when they read a news article suggesting men were the majority, they expected those men to spend more on dates and Valentine's Day presents (these ladies had apparently also read a lot of Cosmo). The study authors hypothesize that when women are scarce, they "can set higher standards for what they consider acceptable in potential mates, including how much men spend on courtship."

They also think sex ratios may effect not just dudes' choices in a laboratory study, but their actual behavior in the real world, and by extension, the behavior of "whole economies." They note that in America, cities with more men have higher consumer debt: "as men become more abundant in populations, American consumers desire access to immediate rewards." In China, the opposite appears to be true — places with a big surplus of men also have higher savings rates. Griskevicius et al think that might be because Chinese men need to save up for a "bride price" to pay the parents of their betrothed, and these bride prices tend to be higher when women are scarcer — "whereas men in one culture may tend to invest in mating effort by saving money for a one-time expenditure (bride price), men in another culture may tend to invest in mating effort by increasing immediate spending on courtship and mate competition." The authors are very bullish on their sex ratio idea, even opining that it might help predict future economic disasters:

[I]t is notable that many contemporary economic and social problems have been caused by excessive behavior that has prioritized short-term rewards over long-term stability (e.g., investing in sub-prime mortgages, drilling for oil in delicate environments, skyrocketing debt). As the imbalance in sex ratios continues to remain in parts of the world or parts of a country, a better understanding of this powerful cue will become increasingly important.

Griskevicius et al are far from the first to posit a surplus of men as a possible cause for America's economic ills — Michael Lewis, for instance, has hypothesized that women make better investment decisions than men and are smarter about risk. And while Griskevicius and his team certainly advance a reductive view of human courtship (when women are scarce, they demand more heart-shaped boxes of chocolates), it's certainly possible that American dudes are socialized to throw money around if they're especially worried about impressing the ladies. Worldwide, though, the question of how sex ratios affect people's lives is far from a settled one.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Rupa Subramanya points out that the increasing lady shortage in India hasn't driven down dowries (the opposite of bride price) — but at least they haven't gone up. And a "No Toilet, No Bride" campaign in the Indian state of Haryana appears to have enjoyed some success — families with sons, anxious to attract a wife, have indeed installed more indoor toilets, which are a big boon to women's safety. However, Subramanya asks, "does having a latrine or dowry someday giving way to brideprice mean real empowerment and true autonomy?" She continues,

There's a big gap between an increase in a woman's (or her family's) bargaining power before marriage and the level of independence that she may or may not enjoy after marriage, to say nothing of the workforce or anywhere else.

Getting a latrine certainly gives a woman greater dignity but it's a long way from real empowerment and true autonomy. And the very term "brideprice" suggests that women are still thought of as just commodities.

Studying sex ratios may well shed some light on men's and women's economic behavior. But "scarcity" alone isn't going to bring women equal rights — especially when they're thought of as a mere good to be inventoried.

Scarcity of Women Leads Men to Spend More, Save Less [ScienceDaily]
Economics Journal: Is Scarcity Making Women More Valuable? [WSJ]