June 26, 2011 in Features

Marriage, dating and a Civic lesson

Paul Walsh And Josephine Marcotty Minneapolis Star Tribune

Everyone knows the racier the car, the racier the hormones.

Now, researchers at the University of Minnesota have brought scientific precision to that age-old observation.

To wit: Sexual signalling really works – but not necessarily the way a young man intends when he buys the biggest TV or the flashiest car.

“Men and women both know that that’s the guy who wants casual sex,” says Vladas Griskevicius, assistant marketing professor. “But he isn’t more desirable as a marriage partner. That’s not the guy you want to marry.”

While the urge to splurge is often blamed on the culture of materialism and incessant advertising, it’s probably the same basic evolutionary drive to spread his genes known to every species on Earth. Other research has shown it’s just as true for men in the Amazon forests and the Australian outback who have never seen a TV.

“Flaunting their money is not too different than the way a peacock displays his tail,” Griskevicius said.

And women really are different.

“The anticipation of romance doesn’t trigger flashy spending (by women) as it does with some men,” says Jill Sundie, a research colleague who teaches at the University of Texas-San Antonio.

Just what inspires women to spend money is largely a question unanswered by science. But Griskevicius said the prevailing theory is that women do it to impress – and compete with – other women.

Mothers of young girls, of course, have known these truths for eons. But the university reasearch – which involved surveys and interviews with 1,000 young men and women in three states – provides some insights that go well beyond what economist Thorstein Veblen famously called “conspicuous consumption” in 1899.

Women, it found, do respond to men who spend lavishly. In one of the studies, women viewed two biographies for a man – each 32, with a master’s degree, a good job and interests in bicycling, movies and music.

The only difference is that one drove a Porsche ($58,000) and the other a Honda Civic ($15,655).

The women preferred the man with the Porsche as a date – but not for marriage. They inferred from his flashy spending that he was interested in sex without commitment, the study concluded.

Fortunately for the institution of marriage, not all men are like that. Some do choose the Honda Civic. That’s what Griskevicius drives now, and it’s what he was driving when he met his wife.

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