Two Views of Consumption in Mating and Dating

Aaron Bernard, Northwestern University
Mara B. Adelman, Northwestern University
Jonathan E. Schroeder, University of Rhode Island
[ to cite ]:
Aaron Bernard, Mara B. Adelman, and Jonathan E. Schroeder (1991) ,"Two Views of Consumption in Mating and Dating", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 532-537.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 532-537


Aaron Bernard, Northwestern University

Mara B. Adelman, Northwestern University

Jonathan E. Schroeder, University of Rhode Island

Endless types of markets are available for analysis, yet few are as consequential as those that facilitate finding a lifelong partner. The process by which single men and women meet and agree to marry can readily be seen as a market phenomenon in which both material and psychological benefits are exchanged in the process of forming and formalizing ongoing relationships. This social process is frequently referred to as the "marriage market."

Due to the important role that exchange plays in the courtship process, many academics from disciplines traditionally concerned with the world of commerce have turned their attention to dating and mate selection. For example, Becker (1973, 1974, 1976, 1981), Freidan (1974), and Parsons (1980) have applied economic models to these social relationships. As the disciplines of marketing and consumer behavior have come to be understood as the study of exchange (Bagozzi, 1975) rather than the study of a particular business function, Kotler and Levy (1969) coined the term personal marketing and Levy and Zaltman (1975, p. xix) used the phrase intimate marketing to refer to certain aspects of romantic relationships. More recently, Hirschman (1987) and Bernard and Adelman (1990) have looked at formal mate-selection networks (i.e., dating services, singles ads, etc.) to show how courtship can be studied as a special case of marketing and/or consumer behavior. Indeed, because consumer researchers combine a theoretical interest in exchange per se with a solid understanding of the commercial marketplace, they are particularly well suited to perform studies involving formal mate-selection services.

As the number of singles reached record proportions (Bennet 1989, Cutler 1989, Fuchs 1988, and Masnick and Bane 1980), the development of products and services targeting this group became a major strategy for the business community as well as nonprofit service providers. A somewhat surprising outgrowth of this larger trend was the rapid increase in the number of formal methods for singles to meet each other. For example Adelman and Bernard (1990) found that

in the ten years between 1978 and 1988, the number of social introduction services listed in the Chicago area yellow pages increased from 5 to 23. Over the same period, singles ads, once the exclusive domain of off-beat publications, have become an established feature in most major newspapers and many magazines such an the New York Review of Books. Movies, like Crossing Delancy and Sea of love, along with television shows like Thirty Something, all incorporate these new introduction techniques into their story lines.

Talk shows such as Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue, as well as news shows like 20/20 (Pfifferling 1989), seem to have an endless fascination with these services. Even the Wall Street Journal (Freedman 1989) devoted front page coverage to a renowned matchmaker. The singles business is booming (Andrews 1988, Bennet 1989, Blodgett 1986, Brand 1988, and Mullan 1984) and represents a significant change in the way many Americans go about finding a mate. (p.1)

These events have not been overlooked by academic researchers (see Adelman and Bernard 1990, for review). In some cases, researchers have used these services as a convenient vehicle to investigate basic questions about mate selection (Curran 1972, 1973a, 1973b, Curran and Lippold 1975, Woll and Cozby 1987, and Woll and Young 1989), whereas other researchers have sought a better understanding of this phenomenon in its own right (Adelman 1987, Bolig, Stein, and McKenry 1984, Cameron, Oskamp and Williams 1977, Godwin 1973, Jedlicka 1981, and Woll 1986).

This paper presents two examples of research involving formal social intermediaries, one from each of these two categories. Schroeder's work extends basic questions about mate selection, as he uses singles ads to investigate the ability of evolutionary theory to explain the role of consumption in human courtship. A summary of Schroeder's research is presented immediately below in the section labeled "Consumer Activities in Romantic Self-Presentation". Bernard and Adelman's work falls into the second category and furthers understanding of these services themselves. Although this research deals specifically with the clients of a matchmaking service, the findings have wider-implications for general theories regarding the role of self-image in product or service utilization. This research is presented in the second major section entitled, "An Empirical Test of Client Utilization Models for Social Introduction Services".


The quest for a romantic partner can require an enormous investment in time and goods. The market for products designed to enhance one's attractiveness, such as personal care items, is substantial. And, of course, advertising utilizes sexual attractiveness to promote products. The use of products and consumer activities can play an important role in how people define, present, and symbolize themselves to others, which is a critical step in the dating and mating process. One dating arena where the link between consumer activities and romantic self-presentation is explicit is personal advertisements, designed to attract responses from readers. This study surveyed a sample of personal ad writers to examine the role that consumer activities play in presenting the self and attracting a potential mate.

Research on mate selection involves a myriad of theoretical approaches, ranging from genetic theories to Jungian psychology. This study draws on three diverse, yet complementary research areas: self-presentation; possessions as symbols; and an evolutionary approach to mate selection and parental investment. The evolutionary framework offers the chance to understand consumer behavior as an extension of behavior patterns established long before the age of consumer goods.

Mate selection is central to the evolutionary drive to maximize one's genetic representation in the gene pool. Thus, the selection of a mate ought to be governed, at one level, by evolutionary mechanisms. This does not imply, however, that individuals are consciously attempting to maximize their ability to produce viable offspring. Furthermore, culture has reinforced male and female evolutionary preferences through institutions such as marriage and more recently the media. Therefore an evolutionary approach does not tell the whole story. Rather it offers one level of analysis. Barkow (1980) suggests that social (and presumably consumer) behavior can be explained by at least four different levels of analysis: physiological, individual differences, culture, and evolution (see also Tooby and Cosmides, 1989). These levels should be complementary, but they are not necessarily derivable from each other. Certainly when dealing with a complex behavior, such as mating, multiple approaches are called for.

Trivers (1972) introduced a theory of parental investment to account for sex differences in mating behavior. Briefly, the theory states that females, who invest greater time, energy, and resources in any given pregnancy than their male partner, will therefore be highly discriminating when selecting a mate. This is because once a female has made a choice of a male partner and becomes pregnant, she is locked into that choice for an extended period of time. If shortly after becoming pregnant, a more desirable male becomes available to her, it's too late for her to change her mind. Therefore, females have an intrinsic motivation to be highly selective in the choice of a partner.

Males, on the other hand, must display the potential to be a good partner, in order to convince females to take the risks involved in making these investments. While females will be concerned with the biological fitness of their mate, this concern will focus on the males' genetic fitness and will only consider males' phenotypic fitness to the degree that it influences the males' ability to contribute resources to the relationship throughout the child-rearing period. Males, on the other hand, will focus more on the phenotypic health of their partner due to the physical demands of pregnancy and childbirth. They will also display a strong preference for youth so as to maximize the fecundity of the relationship. In this way, the current sex differences in mate selection can be understood by the increased reproductive success that they gave to past generations.

In the modern world of mate selection, consumer goods and activities provide clues to potential mates' desirability. Thus, consumption may serve as a signal that the consumer possesses evolutionarily adaptive characteristics. Personal ads provide an excellent data source to test evolutionary theories as applied to consumer behavior, because these ads frequently mention consumer goods and activities in connection with describing the self or the desired other.

This study extends earlier work on singles ads (Baize and Schroeder 1989, Deaux and Hanna 1984, Harrison and Saeed 1977, Hirschman 1987, Koestner and Wheeler 1988) by interpreting results in terms of evolutionary significance. As reasoned above, evolutionary theory predicts that males will be more successful in attracting potential mates when displaying symbols of economic fitness, and females will be more successful when mentioning or displaying symbols of physical fitness. Thus, a given strategy will have a different level of success depending on the sex of the ad writer.


To investigate this hypothesis, 240 heterosexual romantic ads were randomly selected from two geographically distinct publications that carry a substantial number of personal ads for the purposes of arranging and attempting romantic relationships. Ads were eliminated from this study if they mentioned relationships other than exclusively heterosexual. To standardize the length of exposure to the ad audience, only ads that appeared for the first time were used. One hundred and sixty-one ads written by men and 142 ads written by women met the criteria; 120 of each sex were then randomly selected for inclusion in the sample. A questionnaire on university letterhead was then mailed to all potential subjects, using their anonymous post office box supplied in the ad.

Responses from 92 heterosexual romantic advertisers to several individual difference measures and the number and quality of answers received were analyzed to assess the relationship between individual characteristics and the success of the personal ads. Three domains were utilized: demographic information gained from the ad writer; scores on individual difference measures; and extensive codings of the content of the ad itself. The entire sample of ads was content analyzed in two phases. First, the content categories of prior research on personal ads was replicated. The second phase focused on the terms the ad writer used to describe him or herself and the terms used to describe the person sought. The terms used in each ad were rated for their inclusion into a coding framework that encompassed attractiveness, personality items, and categories of what the ad writer desired and offered. Two independent undergraduate research assistants, blind to the study's hypothesis, were trained in the coding procedure using other ads not in the study. They then each coded a portion of all 240 ads that were sent materials. For the 36 ads that both assistants coded, inter-coder agreement averaged 85 percent; discrepancies were resolved by the authors. The number of responses subjects received serves as a criterion variable for success in attracting potential mates.




Results show a significant negative relationship between age of women and number of responses; older men received more responses, as did more educated and higher income males (see table 1). This supports the general hypothesis derived from evolutionary theory that men and women will have differing emphases in evaluating potential mates. The content codes provide insight into the role that consumption activities play in mate selection (see table 2). Ads that mentioned an expensive cultural activity, such as European vacations, were significantly correlated with number Of responses for men, but not for women. This is interpreted as a symbol of financial security. Ads that mentioned active sports, such as skiing, were positively correlated with response ate for women, but not for men, underscoring male preference for physically active and attractive mates.


These cultural activities may be understood through their relationship to the evolutionary framework suggested by Trivers (1972) and Buss (1987), in which the sexes are expected to differ in their strategies for attracting males. Kenrick and Trost (1989) suggested that the male-selection process that underlies writing a personal ad can be understood in its evolutionary context for fitness and reproductive potential. According to this approach, males are expected to value physical qualities that serve as cues to reproductive capacity in women. Women, on the other hand, attempt to attract a stable, providing mate. Women show a distinct preference for men who are older, more educated, interested in expensive cultural activities, and who are more masculine. All of the characteristics are related to status and access to material resources. Conversely, men preferred younger, active women, qualities that can be considered examples of physical resources.

The evolutionary approach can be considered one level of analysis of a complex activity. Clearly, personal advertising is a social phenomenon that involves marketing oneself and responding (consuming) to the advertisements. Personal ads provide an excellent forum to study the marketing or presentation of the self in a meaningful, unobtrusive context. By applying evolutionary theory to these investigations, it is possible to integrate some aspects of consumer behavior into widely held biological theories of mate selection.


"Lonely and desperate"

(description of people who use dating services. Wall Street Journal, 1989)

Despite the stigma associated with using introductory services, the past decade has seen a meteoritic rise in the number of introductory services for mate-seeking (Adelman and Bernard 1990). The emergence and viability of these innovative channels as conduits for romance calls for an investigation of these intermediaries and a questioning of negative stereotypes (i.e., lonely and desperate) associated with client utilization.


In this research users of one of these matchmaking services are contrasted (N=98) with a closely matched comparison group (N=57). This data was used to test two models of client utilization for these services to understand the role the services play in changing social norms. The two models were,



A. The Social Skills Deficiency Model.

The deficiency model is based on the popular stigma associated with clients of these services. It holds that people join dating services because they have social, psychological, and behavioral deficiencies that prevent them from establishing romantic relationships through conventional channels.

B. The High Selectivity Model.

The selectivity model is the rival to the deficiency hypothesis and is based on the data gathered in exploratory interviews. These interviews revealed that the deficiency stereotype did not accurately reflect the interview responses. Rather, a common thread in comments by members of the matchmaking service was that they were socially active and people of worth, but for various reasons they were simply unable to meet the person they were looking for and sought a service that would provide a selective and efficient mode for meeting prospective mates. A result is the hypothesis that they may have high standards in a potential mate and this partly accounted for their inability to meet an acceptable partner and thus their involvement in an introductory service. This notion is formally presented by the hypotheses that users of introductory services are more likely to be "selective" in regards to their criteria for a male, (i.e., economic, physical, and personhood attributes) than non-users of these services.


All respondents in this study were associated with a large Jewish agency that sponsored a wide variety of programming and activities for singles. The agency is located in an upscale neighborhood community center in a major metropolitan area. The targeted audience for this service is professional, well-educated Jewish singles ranging from their mid-twenties to mid-forties who are looking for lifelong partners.

The target group (henceforth referred to as "members") was drawn from the current and former clients of a non-profit, matchmaking service sponsored by this agency. A comparable group of non-users (herein referred to as "comparison group") was drawn from the single members of the larger Jewish community organization that sponsors the introductory service. Both groups of respondents were sent extensive questionnaires covering the experience of single life and including psychological scales measuring loneliness, ability to elicit self-disclosure from others, shyness, satisfaction with the friendship network, and self- esteem. The questionnaires also included items pertaining to how selective the respondent was in his or her choice of a spouse.


The deficiency model represents the popular stereotype of matchmaking clients as more "deficient" in social and psychological characteristics than non-users of these services. This stereotype was strongly disconfirmed by the data. In fact, members were found to be less shy than the comparison group (p< .10), and they were found to have higher self-esteem than the comparison group (p< .01).

The investigation of possible gender differences revealed that the differences (or lack of differences) between the members and the comparison group were not dependent on the gender of respondents. No significant interaction effects between gender and group membership were found.

The rival hypothesis points to the greater selectivity of members in regards to their criteria for a mate (i.e., economic, physical, and personhood attributes) than non-users of these services. This hypothesis was supported by findings that members were more selective regarding physical attractiveness (p<.10) and more selective regarding several desirable personality characteristics (p<.01). Once again, the investigation of possible gender differences revealed that these findings were not dependent on the gender of respondents. No significant interaction effects between gender and group membership were found.


Because the social conditions that gave rise to these services show no signs of abating, it is possible that utilization of these social channels could expand over the coming years. If this is the case, these conduits to romance represent a major change in the social ethos that has governed dating and courtship since the 1920s. To better grasp this trend and the way service intermediaries are permeating social relations and culture, requires a better understanding of the people who are experimenting with these innovative social channels. Furthermore, the stigma associated with these channels may in itself be detrimental to the development of romantic relationships on the part of their members. Apart from these services being perceived as anti-romantic, clients may make unfounded negative attributions toward the other clients they meet through these services because they may see themselves as the rare exception to the loser stereotype. In stripping away the stigma, one sees that introductory services are not the last resort of social rejects, but rather a professional service for a self assured and very demanding clientele.


In the introduction this paper discussed the two basic approaches that research involving formal mate-selection networks have taken. The first used these networks to investigate general theoretical concerns, and the second sought to illuminate the nature of the networks themselves. While this distinction is useful, it is clear from the examples summarized here that there is broad overlap between these two categories. Schroeder's work, while ostensibly only using singles ads as a means to test evolutionary theory, can still provide insight into the functioning of singles ads themselves. Likewise, the work of Bernard and Adelman goes beyond a descriptive study of a matchmaker's clientele and offers new data on the role of self-image in product and service utilization. Future work along these lines is needed, both to increase understanding of human mate selection in general and in explaining emerging social and cultural institutions.


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