Study: Young men flaunt attractive romantic partners

New research published in Evolutionary Psychological Science examined whether men flaunt attractive partners to enhance their own social status.

The findings from the four-part study suggest that a romantic partner can function like a luxury watch or other conspicuous goods to enhance the status of the flaunter. The research was published online March 16, 2017.

A survey of 66 men and 51 women found that a person described as attending a party with an attractive romantic partner was viewed as having a higher social status than a person described as attending a party with an unattractive romantic partner. The same was true of a person described as attending with an expensive Rolex watch versus a cheap, plastic watch. Another survey of 41 men and 82 women found that a man with an attractive wife was judged to have a higher social status than the same man with an unattractive wife. This finding was replicated in a third survey of 100 men.

The fourth part of the study indicated that young men do like to show off their attractive partners.

The researchers paired 105 male college students with an attractive or unattractive female partner. The students were told they could choose to hand out the surveys at several locations: an undergraduate area populated mostly with young men, an undergraduate area populated mostly with young women, an administrative area populated mostly with older women, or an administrative area populated mostly with older men. Male students paired with attractive partner were more likely chose to hand out surveys at an undergraduate location populated mostly with other young men. Those with an unattractive partner were more likely to pick the administrative locations.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Bo Winegard of Florida State University. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Winegard: My brother (Ben Winegard; the second author on the paper) and I were discussing costly signaling theory (or hard-to-fake signals) and high school. We remembered that sometimes men and women would be embarrassed to date a member of the other sex. And we noted how proud some men were to date a cheerleader or a dance team member. I am not sure exactly how, but something clicked. “Hey, I’ll bet that one could use signaling theory to explain this phenomenon,” one of us said. The basic idea was this. Dating a very attractive, desirable member of the other sex would function as a costly signal of one’s underlying traits (intelligence, kindness, ambition, et cetera), because only a smart, kind, ambitious person could date a very attractive and desired member of the other sex. Therefore, one should be motivated to display proudly a desirable romantic partner. Conversely, one might be motivated to hide (conceal) a less desirable partner.

Then we read a lot of the literature, discovered that nobody had yet forwarded this hypothesis, and decided to test it.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Just as watches, cars, and fancy suits can signal somebody’s status, so too can an attractive romantic partner. Now, this doesn’t mean that people should treat their romantic partners as shiny display objects (and, of course, many feminists have argued that some men do this and should not); it simply means that some people probably do. In this series of studies, we looked only at men’s flaunting (showing off romantic partner) behaviors, but in a previous study, we found that women also flaunt partners. This could, incidentally, explain why people are so desirous to attain autographs and memorabilia from famous people: it suggests a closeness to the celebrity that might signal status.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Oh there are always caveats!! Here, we were attempting to ascertain whether men would prefer to flaunt (show off) to other men or other to other women. Previous theories in the literature suggested that men would flaunt attractive partners to woo even more attractive partners. But we thought that a lot of flaunting was about obtaining prestige from other men. Our results seem to support our hypothesis, but only one study directly examined it. So, what do we know? We know that observers very consistently rate men with attractive partners more favorably than men with unattractive partners. We have replicated that effect maybe 7 or 8 times, and others have found it as well.

But I am still not sure about the intended audience. I think we need more research on that. Also, the laboratory study was conducted with college undergraduates. I don’t know exactly how it would generalize to the broader population. Somebody shared with me an article about a baseball manager who said he judges the attractiveness of the wives of applicants. He (the coach) said this, “”There’s a very strong correlation between having the confidence, going up and talking to a woman, and being quick on your feet and having some personality and confidence and being fun and articulate, than it is walking into a high school and recruiting a kid and selling him.” Of course, his comments were crude (and he later apologized), but they suggest that the effect would generalize. But, as yet, it has not been tested in a more diverse (age, education level) population.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

It is very important to note that this work is descriptive, not prescriptive. We aren’t saying that people should display their mates to get status or should treat them as luxury goods. I was actually generally dismayed by this in high school, which is part of the reason it remained salient to me all those years later. But, as scientists, we have to study the world, including social behavior, as it is, not as we would like it to be. And, for Seinfeld loves, this might explain part of an episode called “The Bizarro Jerry.” I’ll leave it there!

The study, “One’s Better Half: Romantic Partners Function as Social Signals“, was also co-authored by Ben Winegard, Tania Reynolds, David C. Geary, and Roy F. Baumeister.