It’s widely known that credit card debt is a problem among young people in the United States. But why are young folks susceptible to running up huge credit card bills?
When I was in college, credit card companies would lure students into opening accounts by giving away t-shirts or 2-liters of Coke in exchange for signing up for a new card. Nearly 20 years later I still have one of those accounts, although the t-shirt is thankfully long gone. I attended an engineering school that had nearly a 2-to-1 male to female sex ratio; there were twice as many young men on campus than women. Did this imbalance affect the likelihood that my fellow single men would get into trouble with their new credit cards? Could it be because of “intrasexual competition” (i.e., competing with other men) for relatively few available females? Looking back, armed with a bit of relationship science, I’m starting to understand the cleverness behind the credit card companies’ strategy.
A series of studies by Griskevicius and colleagues examines these questions. They show that residents tend to have more credit cards and rack up more debt on those cards when there are more single men than women in a particular city. Of course, being an astute reader of SofR, you know that correlation does not equal causation, and that more controlled experiments need to be conducted to show that a sex imbalance actually causes men to spend beyond their means.
In additional studies, the researchers show that when men perceive a sex imbalance in the dating pool (i.e., they are led to think there are more males than females) they are more likely to focus on immediate financial rewards; they prefer to take less cash now versus wait for more money later. Furthermore, men indicated that were more willing to go into credit card debt when they outnumbered women and would save less of their monthly income. After all, when women are scarce, guys are going to feel the need to shell out more dough for Valentine’s Day gives, a date’s dinner, or a fancy engagement ring. Otherwise, their gal may bolt for that guy with the larger wallet (“How Big Is His…Wallet”). Interestingly, women also expected men would spend more on these courtship behaviors when they believed that there were more men than women in the dating pool. But, women were not likely to spend more when they outnumbered the guys (but they may put out more).
In short, with perceived competition for mates, men are willing to spend more. It’s basic supply and demand in action: when mates are in high demand, men are more likely to be generous during courtship, even at the expense of running up their credit cards. What’s in your wallet?
Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J. M., Ackerman, J. M., Delton, A. W., Robertson, T. E., & White, A. E. (2012). The financial consequences of too many men: Sex ratio effects on saving, borrowing, and spending. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 69-80.
Dr. Benjamin Le – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.