The Economist has an article on Geoffrey Miller, who offers an interesting hypothesis. He believes that “mental processes which are uniquely human, such as language and the ability to make complicated artefacts, evolved originally for sexual display,” and, further, that “men and women will have different criteria for making their choices [in selecting a mate], and so the sexual-display sides of their minds may differ in detail.” To test this hypothesis, he and his colleagues conducted a study to “look into two activities—conspicuous consumption and altruism towards strangers—to see if these support the ‘mating mind’ hypothesis, as Dr Miller has dubbed his idea.”
They divided a bunch of volunteers into two groups. Those in one were put into what the researchers hoped would be a “romantic mindset” by being shown pictures of attractive members of the opposite sex. They were each asked to write a description of a perfect date with one of these people. The unlucky members of the other group were shown pictures of buildings and told to write about the weather.
The participants were then asked two things. The first was to imagine they had $5,000 in the bank. They could spend part or all of it on various luxury items such as a new car, a dinner party at a restaurant or a holiday in Europe. They were also asked what fraction of a hypothetical 60 hours of leisure time during the course of a month they would devote to volunteer work.
The results were just what the researchers hoped for. In the romantically primed group, the men went wild with the Monopoly money. Conversely, the women volunteered their lives away. Those women continued, however, to be skinflints, and the men remained callously indifferent to those less fortunate than themselves. Meanwhile, in the other group there was little inclination either to profligate spending or to good works. Based on this result, it looks as though the sexes do, indeed, have different strategies for showing off. Moreover, they do not waste their resources by behaving like that all the time. Only when it counts sexually are men profligate and women helpful.
That result was confirmed by the second experiment which, instead of looking at the amount of spending and volunteering, looked at how conspicuous it was. After all, there is little point in producing a costly signal if no one sees it.
As predicted, romantically primed men wanted to buy items that they could wear or drive, rather than things to be kept at home. Their motive, therefore, was not mere acquisitiveness. Similarly, romantically primed women volunteered for activities such as working in a shelter for the homeless, rather than spending an afternoon alone picking up rubbish in a park. For both sexes, however, those in an unromantic mood were indifferent to the public visibility of their choices.
These two studies support the idea, familiar from everyday life, that what women want in a partner is material support while men require self-sacrifice. Conspicuous consumption allows men to demonstrate the former. Blatant benevolence allows women to demonstrate the latter. There is, however, a confounding observation. The most blatant benevolence of all, that of billionaires giving away their fortunes and heroes giving away (or at least risking) their lives, is almost entirely a male phenomenon.
To examine this, the team did another experiment. They found that when requests for benevolence were financial, rather than time-consuming, romantically primed men were happy to chip in extravagantly. Giving money to charity is thus more akin to conspicuous consumption than it is to blatant benevolence. The primed men were also willing (or at least said they were willing) to act heroically as well as spend—but only if the action suggested was life-threatening. Women, romantically primed or not, weren’t.