Attractive Women Make Men Impatient


I’ve written a few times about the effects of pictures of attractive women on decision-making by men. In Bikinis, Babes, and Buying, we learned that guys who looked at pictures of bikini-clad women made impulsive decisions. In A Pretty Woman Beats a Good Loan Deal, we found that men accepted higher loan rates when the direct mail offer included a picture of an attractive woman. Do women just make men crazy? Actually, there’s a scientific explanation for these effects.

Evolutionary psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly (both of McMaster University) studied this phenomenon and concluded that pictures of attractive women were causing men to “discount the future” more by putting them in a “mating” frame of mind. A clever experimental plan demonstrated the priming effect of photos of attractive women.

The researchers evaluated the degree to which subjects discounted the future. We all discount the value of future benefits vs. immediate or short-term benefits. Most of us would choose to have $100 given to us immediately vs., say, $105 in two years. Every individual has their own “discount rate” for making these kinds of decisions. Men, as a group, have a higher discount rate than women, i.e., their preferences skew toward shorter-term rewards. Wilson and Daly explain this based on evolutionary psychology:

A sex difference in discounting is predictable. Because men have always had some chance of gaining fitness from short-term expenditures of mating effort, whereas successful reproduction typically requires more prolonged parental investment by women, men should have evolved to discount the future more steeply than women, and sex differences in age-specific mortality confirm this expectation (e.g. Arias 2002). Men also have higher discount rates than women in choices of monetary rewards (Kirby & Marakovic 1996). [From Do pretty women inspire men to discount the future? by Margo Wilson and Martin Daly.]

Wilson and Daly tested this hypothesis by showing men and women photos of faces of attractive and unattractive members of the opposite sex. Men who viewed photos of women judged to be attractive showed a significant increase in their discount rate, i.e., they became more attracted by short-term rewards. The other groups did not show statistically significant changes.

As with my previous coverage of this issue, the neuromarketing implications remain the same: male viewers are influenced by photos of attractive women, and their decisions skew toward the short-term and impulsive. Incorporating such images in marketing or point-of-sale materials has the potential to lift sales if the product itself has an appropriate reward. For example, I would think that sales of, say, apparel or grooming products would do better than, say, broccoli. The work done by Wilson and Daly specifically looked at monetary rewards, which would have most significance for products like loans, insurance, investments, casinos, etc.

When NOT to use pretty women

I’d also expect that photos of attractive women could be ineffective or even a negative when selling certain kinds of products to men. For example, products like life insurance and annuities both involve spending current money for a future (and, in the case of insurance, uncertain) payout. Priming male sales prospects with mating cues could be counter-productive by making the cash in their pocket seem more valuable compared to the future rewards.
Image via Shutterstock

  1. Verilliance says


    I’ve also read studies where using attractive photos of women in marketing materials backfires. Basically, all the guy sees is the pretty woman, and doesn’t actually pay attention to or remember the ad or product.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I agree that there’s definitely a tradeoff. If your ad looks like a spread from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, male viewers may be attracted and primed, but will likely spend their time checking out the models instead of reading the copy. In this future discounting study, they presented the photo before moving on to the offer. A television ad could similarly place the priming stimulus before the rest of the content. In print and direct mail, I’d say the best approach would be to include an image that is attractive but unlikely to draw detailed scrutiny, probably smaller, and in a context that made sense for the ad (e.g., using the product, answering an order line, etc.).

  2. Gil Reich says

    Is it possible that there’s too much effort to explain things in terms of evolutionary biology and rational economic behavior? Could it be just a side-effect of the male sex drive weakening our discipline and pushing us to immediate pleasure? I know “not enough blood to power both organs” is scientifically inaccurate, but I wonder if the answer here lies more in terms of human frailty than in terms of competitive evolutionary advantage. I also wonder whether there have been any studies trying to correlate this kind of behavior with ADD, which might shed more light onto whether it’s a discipline issue or an adjustment of a coefficient.

  3. brian says

    I think a lot of people would choose 100 bucks today vs 105 bucks a year from now.

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