'Overspending Has Become a Modern Form of Mating Deception'

Living beyond one's means can make dating easier, but it leads to problems as a relationship gets more serious.

Warner Bros. Pictures

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.

Though Geher and Kaufman offer a timely critique of dishonest spending, their call for fiscal forthrightness may gain little traction on the strength of the mating motivation alone. So many of us routinely overspend that we're living in a kind of communal status bubble. That increases the social and emotional costs of abandoning debt-based living.

For most of my 20s, I bought clothes, dinners, and trips on credit, ever shunting full payment down the road. I had no idea how long it would take to pay down my debt, nor did I even consider the timeline until I went through a long, but transformative season in which I had roughly $50 a week for food and transit after paying critical bills. (Since I worked from home, I rarely left Brooklyn and, when I did, often borrowed a roommate's unlimited MetroCard. I probably would not have survived if not for knowing how to cook.)

Eventually, that prolonged financial hardship taught me to live within my means. Several years ago, I quit carrying a credit-card balance and last year, at age 34, I finally paid off my student loans. But it wasn't the threat of turned-off suitors that helped me reform my habits and learn to save; it took having my back against the wall, no financial safety net to help me.

Choosing to quit overspending means accepting a reduction in status. Though friends may accommodate your new budget constraints to some extent, it's unlikely that they will en masse switch to cheaper restaurants or clothing brands, even if that would more honestly reflect their own wealth.

Spending less and reducing debt does carry one clear reproductive boon, however: future freedom. Once I'd learned to spend within my means, the hope of future motherhood provided my biggest motive for aggressively paying off credit cards and my student loans. If I brought no debt into a marriage, I reasoned, that would reduce our financial obligations and make it easier for me to possibly stay home when my children were young.

Preserving future childcare options seems a less likely motive for men to reduce overspending, but Geher and Kaufman don't really discuss gender differences in mating deception. (Their examples of false wealth displays are nearly all male, however.) Whatever form such ruses may take, Mating Intelligence Unleashed provides a good reminder to assess potential partners carefully before committing. In seeking a forthcoming partner, we might do well to assess our own honesty first.