If sexual boundaries are indeed becoming more blurred, an intriguing new iteration awaits the straight man, who—an Australian study has found—responds so intensely to advertisements showing sexily sculpted, six-packed men that he becomes more reckless with money.
A test involving 180 heterosexual men and women led by Eugene Chan, a lecturer in marketing at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), examined how they compared themselves to the hot models in Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret campaigns.
Chan, who holds a doctorate in marketing, analyzed their responses in relation to financial risk-taking—to how they would play lottery gambles with varying degrees of risk but equivalent outcome, for example, or how much they would invest in a stock relative to a mutual fund.
“I’ve never found that men are attracted or pay attention to good-looking guys,” said Chan. “Rather, my focus is on what happens when the average heterosexual man sees a good-looking guy, whether on the street, at the gym, or even ads. What I found, briefly, is that when the average man does so, he likely sees himself as less attractive, which then makes him likely to take greater financial risks, such as by investing in risky but lucrative companies on the stock market.”
Chan’s male and female participants were shown pictures of sexy same-sex models in “suggestive but not sexually explicit poses.” Another group was shown images of average-looking males and females.
“I found that male participants who saw the Abercrombie & Fitch ads took a lot more risks than those who saw average-looking males,” said Chan. “I found no difference for female participants between those who saw Victoria’s Secret ads and those who saw average-looking females.”
As to whether the heterosexual men were turned on sexually by the images, Chan said he had “no measures of ‘arousal’ at all.” Chan did not test the images on LGBT participants and said he “would feel uncomfortable, from a researcher standpoint, to even theorize what might happen for these individuals.”
The straight male participants, he found, “generally acknowledge the good looks of the male models in Abercrombie & Fitch ads. For obvious reasons, these participants felt worse about their own physical appearance. Prior research has demonstrated this for both men and women.”
So how do these adverts encourage straight men to subsequently part with their money recklessly? “It’s not about taking financial risks and getting more money to ‘spend on’ things,” said Chan. “Rather, it’s about making them [male participants] more secure about themselves and attractive to women as a potential partner. It has been evident by prior research that women look for men who are not only physical attractive but also men who have financial resources. From an evolutionary standpoint, these two outcomes increase the desirability of men as a mating partner to women.
“Thus, evolutionary processes have made men try to appear ‘high’ on both these areas: physical attractiveness and having financial resources. If men lack one—i.e., physical attractiveness—they would be motivated to compensate by accruing the other, i.e., financial resources or money.”
Chan found mixed results for women who saw images of female models. “Sometimes female participants who saw such images took greater financial risks than those who saw average-looking women. Sometimes they did not,” he said. “I was not able to conclusively explain why this may be the case.”
However, Chan said, it may be because men don’t necessarily look for women with money. “Men look for women with good looks and beauty but not money. So from an evolutionary standpoint, women who lack physical attractiveness might not necessarily take greater financial risks because accruing more money doesn’t necessarily make them more desirable to men as a partner.”
So does “sex sell,” even if the straight men claim not to be turned on by the images of men?
“One could say that: ‘Sex sells—in a financial setting,’” said Chan. “For example, one implication of my research is that if a Silicon Valley startup wants to get more investors, especially heterosexual males, they might want to use more physically attractive men in their ads. That being said, I don’t want to offer a way that might make men financially worse off, especially if they invest in companies that turn out to be a flop.”
More broadly, Chan hopes his research “will better understand how good-looking guys, whether in person or images of, might change how males make financial decisions.”
As he notes, his research focuses on financial but not other types of risks. “It remains unclear whether good-looking men might make other guys sky-dive, for instance,” he said. “But from an evolutionary perspective, the likely answer is no, because sky-diving or other recreational or social risks doesn’t necessarily help men appear more desirable to women as a partner.”
Chan’s other research focuses on different ways to increase or decrease financial risk-taking. He has found that people who use Facebook or other online social networking sites take greater financial risks. “I’ve also found that being under time pressure changes how we approach decisions related to investing in the stock market,” he said.
What does this latest study tell us about straight male sexuality? I asked Chan. “I remember in college, my professor once said that guys choose what clothes to wear not to appear fashionable to women but to men,” he replied. “This started my fascination and interest with evolutionary research and how it may or may not explain our behavior. Although my research doesn’t say men are aroused by other good-looking guys, it does suggest that good-looking guys do impact men in different ways.”
He added: “We—speaking as a heterosexual man—all like to say that other guys don’t affect us, our behaviors, and our thoughts. But my research, along with prior ones, suggest that this isn’t necessarily so. They do impact us, whether we are conscious of it or not.”