A Chinese man sued his wife last year for hiding her extensive premarital plastic surgery. To evolutionary psychologists Glenn Geher and Scott Barry Kaufman of SUNY New Paltz and New York University, respectively, this would be just another instance of mating deception, the practice of strategically exaggerating one's reproductive fitness in order to improve the odds of finding a mate.
In more benign cases, such "augmentations" could range from getting Botox to lying about your education or salary. Some such ruses are easier to detect than others (a bad dye job, for instance). But Geher and Kaufman argue in their book Mating Intelligence Unleashed that some of the greatest damage from mating deceptions, both individually and communally, comes from the status-enhancement of overspending.
"The lifeblood of the financial credit industry ... is helping people purchase things they cannot afford," they write. "Overspending may act as a false signal of wealth, and although it is a false signal, sometimes this deception is effective. In fact, given how core deception is in human mating, it seems clear that overspending has become a modern form of false signaling, or mating deception."
If you or I don't typically think of credit card debt as a "mating gamble," we're probably in good company—but Geher and Kaufman argue the two are more connected than we realize. That's because sex and reproduction are also more connected than we tend to acknowledge in this age of ready contraception. Indeed, the drive to pass on one's genes may motivate us even more strongly than survival itself.
For both women and men pursuing long-term mating strategies, a potential partner's character, personality, and social status carry significant weight. None of these can be measured objectively, of course, status in particular. Lacking a modern-day version of Debrett's (the English guide to aristocrat's ancestry), we tend to judge others' status partly by their stuff. But that's not the only impact of casually wielding a brand-new iPad or Prada bag.
"In making social judgments of others, we infer all kinds of things from people's belongings," Geher and Kaufman write. "We infer personality traits, social status, familial background, and intelligence levels, and ultimately... we unconsciously infer genetic quality."
Someone's style probably affects such inferences more at a speed-date event than after we've known him or her several months, but whether you can afford your lifestyle could stay a secret for years. Many people would probably share their age or even weight much sooner than our total debt or net worth. Even engaged couples might not discuss their finances without the prompting of a premarital counselor—especially if they plan to keep separate bank accounts.
But Geher and Kaufman hope mating intelligence—the "special case of social intelligence" whose existence their book posits—can expose deceptive spending. "[H]igh levels of mating intelligence should go a long way in helping people tease apart genuine from false courtship signals," they write.
Why does financial "false signaling" matter? For one thing, because the single overspender will probably become a married overspender, if his or her status enhancement pays off. But deceptive spending doesn't just reflect on one's financial character. Geher and Kaufman cite a 2008 study finding that debt was also correlated with sexual partners, at least for men. "Controlling for income levels, males who were more likely to overspend and build up balances that they could not afford were more likely than other males to have multiple sex partners," they report. Thus, women wooed by a guy's seeming wealth could face disappointment on the monogamy front as well.