The Wedding Ring Phenomenon

Cristen Conger

A wedding bands chick magnets?
A wedding bands chick magnets?

Recently, a Stuff Mom Never Told You listener wrote in with a perplexing question about she terms "the wedding ring phenomenon":

"...a guy, lets call him John, told us about how he will wear a wedding ring while trying to pick up women. I thought it was appalling and completely ludicrous, but my husband thought it made sense.

The next time I heard about it was from my husband's old boss and more recently from his current boss. Apparently, they think that men wearing rings are considered ideal mates and that women will be attracted to them and hit on them. I don't agree with this at all. Back when I was single, when I saw a ring I immediately thought "that property is taken" and moved on. My husband thinks that is more of a male view and believes that most other women think differently. He believes that when the average female sees a male with a wedding ring that she thinks that he must have desirable traits, and then immediately wants the desirable man and acts on that desire.

I was curious if you know of any research backing this wedding ring phenomenon or if the men in my life are just full of themselves."

While that John fellow wearing a wedding band in hopes of deceiving women into the bedroom sounds like something out of the Barney Stinson playbook, his icky angle actually has some empirical support. In 1994, University of Texas psychology professor David Buss coined the term mate poaching to refer to people's attraction to -- and pursuit of -- others who are in committed, presumably monogamous relationships. Buss and others have found cross-cultural, cross-gender evidence for mate poaching, although men are more likely to report attempting it -- and not a slim minority, either. One study found 60 percent of men and 38 women copped to attempting short-term mate poaching, i.e. hopping into bed with a "taken" somebody.

A 2009 study out of Oklahoma State University further suggested that for single straight women, being in a relationship may very well make men more attractive. In the experiment, social psychologists Melissa Burkley and Jessica Parker told one group of single women they'd been matched up with unattached Mr. Rights, and 59 percent expressed interest in pursuing their computer-generated suitors. But when Burkley and Parker told the variable group of single ladies they also had found Mr. Rights, though they were currently in relationships, a whopping 90 percent of women were interested anyway.

So why would women in particular mate poach men? Speaking to The New York Times' John Tierney, David Buss attributes it to our polygynous (one man with multiple wives) past:

"Single women in these cultures typically find mated men with high status, resources, and a wife or two more attractive than single men who lack the status or desirability to attract a mate. Women's sexual psychology evolved in the context of a mating system with some polygyny. Modern women have inherited the sexual psychology of their successful ancestral mothers. They carry with them an attraction for men who have demonstrated an ability to attract other women."

In other words, the podcast listener's guy friends' theory about wedding bands serving as blinged-out advertisements for their desirability wasn't off the mark after all. The media have widely reported on study findings regarding women and mate poaching, with headlines repeatedly declaring that women, often portrayed as single and crazy desperate, are all secretly attracted to other people's husbands, which, of course, is an overreaching generalization. Moreover, though a "wedding ring phenomenon" may appear more pronounced in women, men far are less discriminating in their search for sexual partners, research demonstrates. As I mentioned earlier, men are more likely to report trying to woo attached women, but they're also more likely to report pursuing a sexual partner regardless of their relationship status.

And in that case (going out on a major theoretical limb here), the meanings of flashy engagement rings and wedding bands take on an interesting twist: in a way, both ultimately reflect back to the status of the man, both financial and sexual. A big diamond indicates that woman is committed to a well-heeled man who can afford such a preposterous rock, warning other guys to steer clear of his bride, while his wedding band communicates to other ladies that he's relationship-worthy -- and mate poachable. How romantic!