Few material goods entail as high a cost and carry as little practical value as an engagement ring.
With this opening gambit, psychologists Jaime Cloud and Madalyn Taylor make it clear that their new research paper is going to be an unsentimental investigation of one of our most deep-seated, and expensive, cultural norms.
Despite all the talk of romance, and commitment, and princess cut diamonds that surrounds the institution of marriage, anyone who dares to view the gifting of expensive rings through a dispassionate psychologist’s eye can’t help but reach the obvious conclusion that it’s all a bit daft.
Let’s face it, rings cost loads (an average of $6000 a pop in the USA), and are about as useful as a glass hammer.
But, of course, they’re not really useless. We all know that. It’s just not polite to say that the real point of an engagement ring is to signal resource investment. In other words, that one partner (usually a man) is willing to spend a lot of resources on the other (usually a woman).
It makes sense when you realize that women, more than men, prefer a partner who is willing to spread the wealth.
The thing is, how much wealth should a man spread? The rule that he should chuck two or even three month’s salary away on a rock the size of Alcatraz is a popular one. If you earn less, you spend less; if you earn more, you spend more.
But surely a man’s salary isn’t the only variable that makes a difference. That’s where Cloud and Taylor step in. The duo, based at Western Oregon University, point out that, although partners are generally similar in attractiveness (we “positively assort” as psychologists say), sometimes one partner is more of a catch than the other. Could a discrepancy in attractiveness between partners affect a man’s generosity?
Cloud and Taylor showed about 600 straight men and women a photo of an opposite sex person. The people in these photos were either relatively attractive or unattractive. Attractiveness was based on ratings made by another group of people: the photos of hot women scored 7.2 out of 10; hot men, 7.6. Less attractive women scored 5.1; men, 4.7.
Each photo was paired with a blurb about the person’s interests and other biographical information, but none of the text was all that revealing. The only reason it was there was to conceal the fact that this was an experiment purely about appearance: the only meaningful difference between each profile was that the person in the photograph was hot or not.
Fiiiive diamond riiiings!
Next, the female volunteers were asked to imagine that, after a respectable period of dating, the man in the photo proposed to them. They were shown a series of five rings, identical except for the size of the diamond and the retail price. The rings ranged from a measly 0.5 carat speck of grit ($500) to a 1.5 carat boulder ($9000). Which ring would be the smallest, and cheapest, they would accept from the man in the photo?
Male volunteers were shown the same set of rings but were asked which one they themselves would buy for the woman in the photo.
Unless you are a hopeless romantic — the sort of person who chases after butterflies by a babbling brook and is always looking for a rhyme for “daffodil”— it will probably come as no surprise to you that attractive women command more expensive rings and that attractive men can get away with spending less.
Cloud and Taylor found that, on average, men were willing to splurge on a 0.86 carat ($2160) ring for an attractive woman, but thought a 0.78 carat ($1680) ring was OK for a woman who was less physically appealing. Women would accept a 0.86 carat ($2160) ring from a dud, but if a stud popped the question they would make do with the smallest possible option: the 0.75 carat ($1500) ring.
And remember, we’re talking about photographs that were rated between 5 and 7 on a 10 point scale. These people are neither supermodels nor, well, the opposite of a supermodel. They’re about average or just above average in attractiveness. And yet this small difference still commands a $600 dollar premium.
It all becomes clear
This is all well and good, but you might be wondering what happens in the real world. After all, these are only hypothetical rings, costing hypothetical dollars, gifted to hypothetical partners. So Cloud and Taylor asked the married women among their volunteers to report the size, clarity, and cost of their engagement rings, and how old they and their husbands had been when they tied the knot.
The psychologists found that brides who were younger than their bridegrooms tended to receive rings with a higher clarity grade. Age is not a perfect measure of a woman’s attractiveness, but younger women do tend to be rated as more attractive. So, it makes sense that men would offer younger women better diamonds. However, there was no link between age-difference and the cost or size of the ring — older men gave younger women diamonds that were equally big and costly — so the results of this study were hardly as clear cut as a jeweler’s handiwork.
Cloud and Taylor wonder whether modern mating may have confused matters somewhat:
When other signals are present (e.g., cohabiting, sharing a bank account), women are expected to demand less expensive engagement rings than when such signals are absent. Likewise, men who carry a track record of abandonment (e.g., divorce, children from a previous relationship) may be required to give more expensive engagement rings as an honest signal of their commitment to the current relationship.
Marriage really is romantic when you put it like that, isn’t it?
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