Ooga Ooga! Men Overspend to Attract Mates

Men are hardwired after eons of evolution to overspend, a new study suggests. Their maxed-out credit cards and mega-purchases have been tied to their desire to attract mates.

The biggest male spenders in the survey were found to have the highest number of reported past partners and desired the most future partners.  

The finding, detailed in the current issue of the journal Evolutionary Psychology, did not hold with women.

Vying for women is simply what men do and have done for hundreds of thousands of years, said study leader Daniel Kruger, a social and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. But how they entice mates has evolved.

"Men in the ancestral environment were valued if they were good providers," Kruger said. "Now we have this new consumer culture, so basically we show our potential through the consumer goods that we purchase, rather than being a good hunter or providing protection."

Financial habits of men

Kruger used data collected from telephone surveys of more than 400 men and women with an average age of 34 (100 men and 309 women). Participants rated how much they agreed with three statements about their financial habits, such as "I always live within my income range," and "Each income period, I set aside at least ten percent for savings."

(A person who highly agreed with the statements would be considered conservative in matters financial, as opposed to consumptive.)

They also indicated marital status and sexual partners (their count for the past five years and number desired in the future).

Men who spent more (saved less) and who were more likely to shell out more than they earned reported having more sexual partners in the past five years and desired more future partners than other guys in the study.

Specifically, the 25 percent of men who were most conservative about spending had an average of three partners in the past five years and desired about one partner in the next five years. The 2 percent of men with the riskiest financial strategies had double those numbers.

For women, financial consumption wasn't significantly related to past or future mates.

Why we're in debt

Kruger said the results could help to explain why so many people are in a financial mess right now.

"It is partially a result of our economic system and recent financial policies, but I really do think that our evolved mating strategies have an influence," Kruger said. "Our competition for economic displays drives our consumer economy and culture of affluence."

He added, "In terms of the current mortgage crisis, the findings suggest that one of the reasons why we overextend ourselves is that we're basically in a status race. We have expectations that spiral upward as people make more money, and everyone wants to show that they are better than average."

This research involved the secondary analyses of data from a project funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.