Gazing at images of impossibly beautiful members of one's own sex can clearly be problematic for women. For those who feel the need to compete, and bemoan the impossibility of doing so, too many fashion magazine spreads can contribute to a variety of mental-health issues, including depression and eating disorders.
Well, new research from Australia finds that for men, photos of good-looking guys have a different, but equally disturbing, psychological impact. All those six-pack abs and chiseled chins can provoke a unique type of self-destructive behavior.
Such imagery can inspire them to make riskier financial decisions.
"Men who have fewer financial resources take greater financial risks than those who have more, because they perceived themselves as less desirable."
"In evolutionary history, men have faced greater intrasexual competition in attracting women as a mating partner," writes Eugene Chan of the University of Technology in Sydney. "Thus, when the average heterosexual man sees an attractive male, he is motivated to increase his desirability, prompting him to accrue money and taking greater financial risks."
In the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, Chan describes four experiments that provide evidence for his assertion. One featured 180 heterosexual Americans—86 men and 94 women with a mean age of 34. They viewed images of 10 same-sex individuals who were either average looking or extremely attractive. (The latter photos were taken from ads for Abercrombie & Fitch or Victoria's Secret.)
Afterwards, participants completed an ostensibly unrelated test to determine the level of financial risk-taking they were comfortable with. Six times, they were asked to choose between one relatively risky and one relatively safe option, such as definitely receiving $50 or having a 50 percent chance of receiving $100.
"Men who saw more attractive males took greater financial risks than those who saw less attractive one," Chan reports. In contrast, women took similar levels of financial risks if they viewed either more or less attractive females.
Another experiment, featuring 84 Americans, was similarly structured, except that, at the end, participants compared their own looks and fitness level to that of the models they had looked at. "For men, but not women, "the lower their perceived physical attractiveness, the greater their financial risk taking," Chan writes.
Additional experiments found that "men who have fewer financial resources take greater financial risks than those who have more, because they perceived themselves as less desirable," and that their underlying motivation was to "increase their desirability as a mating partner."
"Greater financial risk-taking is driven by the need for men to compensate for their perceived lack of physical attractiveness," Chan concludes, "and accruing financial resources is one way to do so."
The larger point is that mating is never far from men's minds, and, consciously or not, we regularly compare ourselves to potential rivals. Awareness of this, guys, can help us step back and avoid making stupid choices.
It kind of makes you wonder what magazines those Wall Street traders were reading at their desks in 2008, as they made the ever-more-risky deals that lead to the financial meltdown. Should GQ be added to our list of causes of the crash?
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.