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Does Sex Reduce the National Savings Rate?

SEPTEMBER 10, 2010

Rich economies are built on patience. How patient people are to consume determines how much they save. How much they save determines how much they invest and how much they invest influences how quickly economies grow.

So it has to be true that in the past, people in rich economies have been patient.

Economists have spent some time thinking about this issue of patience and, particularly, why individuals in some societies are patient (those with high savings rates) and individuals in others are impatient (those with low savings rates). Laboratory tests conducted for purpose of establishing a relationship between sexual stimulus and consumption might have something to tell us on this issue.*

Researchers have found that exposure to sexual stimulus makes individuals impatient.

This makes me wonder if there is a relationship between patience and sex on the societal level, after all the saving rate in the U.S., and my country Canada, has been falling for the past 30 years; over a period in which we have had more and more exposure to sexual imagery.

Imagine that you have a choice. You can choose between receiving a hundred dollars today and another dollar amount one year in the future. Now say that I ask you to specify the dollar amount in the future that will make you indifferent between the $100 today and that amount. The dollar amount that you chose tells me how patient you are to consume. So, say for example that you chose $100, so that you are indifferent between $100 today and $100 next year. That choice says that you are extremely patient and would be willing to save $100 at a very low interest rate; in fact, you would save at any interest rate above 0%. Alternatively, say that you would require $200 in a year’s time to make you indifferent between the two choices. That says you are extremely impatient to consume. In order to encourage you to save $100 now you would require an annual interest rate of 100%.

This is the type of test that was done in the research I mentioned above except that the (male) participants were asked this question after being exposed to different types of visual stimuli. The authors find that men who were exposed to images of non-naked women (in swimsuits and lingerie) posed in a provocative manner (i.e. the type of images we see every day in billboards and on store windows) were significantly more impatient to consume than those who were exposed to visually appealing, but non-erotic, landscapes.

The men who are visually sexually stimulated would save consistently saved less than the non-stimulated men.

The purpose of this research is to determine a relationship between sexually provocative marketing campaigns and consumption with the idea that sexually stimulated men engage in impulse buying. But perhaps there is an application for societies as a whole.

No one can deny that North Americans have become less patient, preferring consumption over savings. The results of this study suggest that the onslaught of sexual imagery we have seen in the past 20 years has conceivably played a role in that impatience.

If sex sells, then it seems to me that a case can be made for sex reducing the national savings rate.

This post originally appeared on my original blog Dollars and Sex at Big Think.

*Van Den Bergh, Bram, Siegfried Dewitte, Luk Warlop (2008). “Bikinis Instigate Generalized Impatience in Intertemporal Choice.” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 35.

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