Evolution has shaped our thoughts and perceptions more than we appreciate. These subconscious choices and behaviors evolved to solve adaptive problems, not the least of which is reproduction. For women, reproductive success involves mating once and then focusing on pregnancy. However, since men do not have to carry a fetus, their reproductive success is limited only by the number of women they can impregnate. This means there are a lot more reproductively-capable men than women, which in turn leads to greater competition among males.
It is fair to conclude that it is thus more important for men to be attractive to women than it is for women to be attractive to men. Indeed, women look for men with physical features such as muscular strength that signal masculinity and dominance. So what happens when an average Joe sees another male who is clearly physical superior? Given that physical attractiveness cannot be changed readily and must operate within the genetic limits of an individual, average Joe must turn to other methods to make him appear more attractive to women.
As shallow as it sounds, one way to do this is to increase one’s financial resources, if only in appearance. Sure enough, women look for men who are not only physically-attractive but also ones with financial resources that signal relationship commitment, skill, and mental acuity, all of which help women's own adaptive problem of taking care of offspring. Needless to say, a man’s socioeconomic status has been shown to influence his reproductive success across cultures, and women looking through personal ads have a preference for men with a high income.
In a series of four elegant experiments, Eugene Chan from the University of Technology, Australia was able to demonstrate without a doubt that men who see attractive males take greater financial risks than those who do not, thus confirming this evolutionary hypothesis.
In the first experiment, more attractive (ads from Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret) and less attractive (regular folk who were neither fit or fat) were shown to 180 American men and women who were subsequently asked to complete an unrelated financial risk-taking game. The results showed a significantly greater amount of financial risks taken by men who saw the more attractive photos. The men who saw less attractive photos took no more risks than men who saw no photos at all (control condition). For women, regardless of the photo seen, all risk taking was similar to the control.
Experiment two expanded upon these findings by repeating the experiment in a separate group of 84 men and women, except that only the more attractive same-sex individuals were shown and the participants had to rate their self-perceived attractiveness in relation to the images afterwards. For men only, a lower self-perceived physical attractiveness significantly increased their financial risk-taking, implying that the effect comes from the need for men to compensate for their perceived lack of physical attractiveness.
Experiment three was to test the compensatory mechanism by manipulating men's perceived income relative to the average American man. A total of 346 men and women randomly received a manipulation of either a high or low relative income by having them write a short answer to a question that differed in word choice that made them think of a personal financial situation in which they were better off or worse afterwards. For example, “Please recall a situation in which you were financially [worse/better] off in comparison to other [men/women] around you.” Afterwards, they again saw the attractive images and then played the financial risk taking game and answered a questionnaire that had them rate their self-perceived attractiveness to the opposite-sex. The results indicated that men who perceived their relative income to be lower took greater financial risks when they saw attractive males, and they rated themselves as less desirable to women.
The fourth and final experiment sought to demonstrate that the effect has an evolutionary basis.A total of 210 men and women were given scenarios that manipulated mating or self-protection motives. When a mating motive is heightened, people are motivated to increase their desirability as a mating partner to women in order to increase their reproductive success. When a self-protection motive is heightened, people are motivated to secure themselves against personal loss. Low-and-behold, men in the mating motive condition were more likely to invest in stock than those in the self-protection motive condition.
Men who see attractive males take greater financial risks than those who do not. From an evolutionary perspective, there was a lot of competition between males for reproduction. Thus, when the average man sees an attractive male, he is motivated to increase his desirability, prompting him to accrue money and taking greater financial risks. Moreover, the greater financial risk-taking is driven by the need for men to compensate for their perceived lack of physical attractiveness. Although money has not always existed as it does now, the signaling of wealth and social status can take many forms.