Is this why people always ask me to play poker?


I’ll admit that my duties at bloomfield knoble don’t usually require me to read Evolution & Human Behavior – the official journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, but as a fan of poker, this abstract by Eugene Chan, University of Technology, Sydney, caught my eye:

Prior research has examined how sexual opposite-sex stimuli impact people’s choices and behaviors. However, it is largely unknown whether sexual same-sex stimuli also do so. This research reports an intriguing phenomenon: men who see attractive males take greater financial risks than those who do not. An evolution-based account is proffered and tested across four experiments. In evolutionary history, men have faced greater intrasexual competition in attracting women as a mating partner. Thus, when the average heterosexual man sees males who are more physically-attractive than he is, he is motivated to increase his desirability as a mating partner to women, prompting him to accrue money, and taking financial risks helps him to do so. This research concludes by discussing the implications of the present findings for men today who are constantly bombarded by not only sexual opposite but also same-sex others, such as images that are commonly used in advertising.

Fortunately, I found it while reading New Scientist – I don’t think I could add one more scientific journal to my current bloomfield knoble reading list. Basically, the study explains that in what seems to be a kind of compensating behavior, when heterosexual men see another man they perceive as being more attractive than themselves, they try to increase their wealth. They make high-risk, high-return decisions. Chan did four behavioral experiments involving 820 men and women. After being shown pictures of attractive men, the heterosexual men in the study were more likely to choose a riskier bet when given the choice than at other times, or than when shown a picture of an attractive woman.

In one experiment, some men were shown male models in Abercrombie & Fitch advertisements, while others were shown female Victoria’s Secret models. A third group were shown photographs of “average” looking people. The participants were then offered the choice of getting $100, or taking a bet where they had a 90% chance of getting nothing and a 10% chance of getting $1000. The men who saw male models were more likely to choose the risky bet than the men who were shown female models or mere mortals. And no difference was seen in the behavior of the women.

The effect was greater in participants who rated the models as “more attractive” than themselves, suggesting the risk-taking was an attempt to compensate for perceived inferiority. And there was a bigger effect when the men were in a “mating mindset,” imagining wooing a woman.

“This financial risk-taking occurs because men want to appear more desirable to women, and having more money is one way to do so,” says Chan. “Taking financial risks is one quick way to get more money, even if it might not be a sure thing.”

Bill von Hippel of the University of Queensland in Australia says the results highlight an aspect of male mating behaviour that people tend to forget. Before attracting females, the men need to compete with other males for access to them, he says. So does taking these kinds of financial risks work? “I guess the idea that money can be helpful for men who are less attractive is evident in many TV shows and movies, ” says Chan. “But yes, one can also say that taking greater financial risks can be a stupid way to go, since it might not necessarily make more money. In fact, you might lose money.”

As a member of the advertising community, the results of this are not surprising to me. When was the last time you saw someone unattractive in an ad for, well, anything? However, I will admit that I had always perceived the use of attractive models in financial marketing to be more aspirational (I want to be that guy / girl) instead of promoting risk. Financial services is a core competency for us at bloomfield knoble. Much of our work lately has been about loss mitigation (helping people avoid foreclosure, for example), so we’re actually trying to do the exact opposite of what this study says – we want people not to take risks.

This study has got me thinking about how we use visual information to relay a decrease in risk without using “fear” as is traditionally used in mitigating risk (smoking-in-bed-kills-people ads come to mind). It’s easy to forget how powerful visuals can be when developing creative when you have a specific call-to-action in mind. Chan agrees. Chan says he can imagine banks or casinos using this information to encourage riskier behavior. “But I can also see policy and government officials counteracting this with stricter regulations regarding advertising.”

So there’s nothing like the sight of a rival to embolden a man, it seems. If you want a straight man to make a riskier play in poker, you should consider getting a hot guy to sit with you. This must be why my friends always ask me to play poker.