It’s fair to say America is obsessed with “gold diggers.” From Anna Nicole Smith to Kevin Federline to whoever Kanye was rapping about on his triple-platinum single, we have a long tradition of assuming that having enough money attracts members of the opposite sex like, well, miners to the Yukon.
But does having money really help attract a mate? We conducted a little online dating experiment to find out.
Using a picture of me and one of my wife Meagan, we created four online dating profiles on OKCupid, two for a man and two for a woman and kept them essentially identical — same picture, same taste in movies and music, etc. The one thing we changed: out of each duo, one had plenty of signals in their profile they were wealthy, the other didn’t.
If the profiles look bland, it’s because they’re meant to be. We wanted to make profiles that were as broadly acceptable as possible, so we could test the effect of the wealthy/nonwealthy variable clearly.
After trying to set the profiles up in New York and having them deleted as spam (perhaps because they were created from our Florida IP address), we eventually set the locations for the rich guy and gal to Miami and the regular guy and gal to Tampa-St. Petersburg. While it would have been great to do them in the same city, we didn’t want to arouse suspicion by having multiple profiles with the same pictures.
After a week, we tallied up the number of profile views and messages to gauge interest in the fictional personas.
What we learned
The first thing we learned was that my wife is objectively much more attractive than I am (happy Valentine’s Day, honey). The female personas with her picture attached absolutely demolished the male personas in terms of both visits and messages.
The other thing we learned was that, at least in this admittedly informal experiment, there were mixed benefits to having a profile that explicitly reflected wealth when it came to catching the interest of the opposite sex.
Because the level of wealth of the personas might not be obvious just from looking at their name and picture, the metric we used to gauge interest was messages per visit.
Among the guys, despite listing an income of $150,000-$250,000, MikeMoola the hedge fund manager got just .09 messages per visit, compared to .15 messages per visit for Bucsfanjeff the retail sales associate, listed at $30,000-$40,000 a year in income.
Interestingly, among the gals, asset manager NickiGreenback did get substantially more interest than coffee-shop barista EmilyCat84. For every visitor to her profile, avowed career woman Nicki got .40 messages; Emily got only .20.
That’s surprising given both perceptions in our society about what men and women look for in a mate, and some of the scientific research out there.
What science says
There’s a substantial amount of research suggesting that access to resources (e.g. money, food, shelter) and the ability to signal to the opposite sex that you have that access can give people, especially men, an advantage when it comes to attracting a mate.
The thinking goes like this: Because women are responsible for bearing and caring for children, they are hardwired to seek out a mate that can provide protection and resources they need to keep those children safe and fed.
“Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize women possess specially-designed long-term mate preferences for cues to a man’s ability and willingness to devote resources to her and their offspring,” says David Schmitt, professor of psychology at Bradley University. “Such cues include a man’s status and prestige which, depending on culture, may involve hunting ability, physical strength, or other locally-relevant attributes, as well as his ambition and work ethic, intelligence and social dominance, and slightly older age.”
On the other hand, there’s a consensus among evolutionary psychologists that male attraction is more driven by physical traits that suggest a woman would have a long and successful period of childbearing ahead of her, Schmitt says.
“Ancestral males may have evolved preferences for cues to youth, health, and genetic quality as these provide useful signals of a woman’s fertility status,” Schmitt says.
Those features may include neotonous, or “young-looking,” facial features such as full lips, clear skin, good muscle tone and wide eyes. It may also include facial and body symmetry, which may be a visual indicator of low genetic mutation.
All of this would seem to suggest that what we typically think of as “gold digging” — young, attractive women pairing with older, resource-laden men — would be pretty consistent with our genetic programming.
A complicated picture
There’s another instinct at work here that can’t be discounted, called “assortative mating.”
“Human mating is really typified by assortative mating — like seeks like,” says Casey Klofstad, a professor of political science at the University of Miami.
Klofstad, along with Rindy Anderson of Duke University, did their own, much larger, analysis of online dating profiles between 2009 and 2010.
Consistent with other research, they found that women were generally more likely to be “resource-seeking” than men, listing income preferences at higher rates than men did in their online dating profiles.
But contrary to the stereotype of gold digging — financially strapped women seeking men with resources to help them out — they found that a woman’s need for resources didn’t really affect how likely they were to seek out a partner with money. Instead, they found that this search for high-earning males was a form of assortative behavior — women with higher incomes were more likely in general to seek out mates with higher incomes.
“People will seek out partners who share their income,” Klofstad says. “And that could be because people want to seek out people who are like themselves, or it could just be that if you’re of a higher socioeconomic status, you tend to associate with people of a higher socioeconomic status.”
Furthermore, income was just one of many factors influencing people’s choice of dating partners. In fact, religion and political preference may be just as important, if not more important, in who people choose to date, Klofstad says.
“It’s not to say that income is the primary driver of our mating preferences, but it’s part of the puzzle, and it’s part of the larger puzzle of ‘like seeks like,’” Klofstad says.
So why did our dating experiment turn out to be so out of step with the current state of research? After all, the men who perused NickiGreenback’s profile didn’t seem to be indifferent to her financial status, and the women who took a look at MikeMoola’s profile didn’t care enough about “resource-seeking” to send him a message.
Well, being that it was a one-off, rather than a whole series of experiments, the sample size is extremely small. Our little gang of made-up profiles could well be outliers, and with a little more experimentation, it’s possible we would have seen results more in line with the current state of research. It’s also possible that the online daters who saw our profiles smelled a rat and thought we would end up trying to sell them male enhancement/weight loss pills/acai berries.
But I’ll chalk the strangeness of our results up to the fact that, as Klofstad said, human attraction is more complex than a set of general principles, and wealth is just one part of a much larger equation.please add your thoughts now! }