Male-biased counties have greater family stability than female-biased counties

A study from the University of Utah looked into the percentage of married men and women, the number of female headed households, and the number of out-of-wedlock births.

Popular intuition presumes that counties with more men than women will have higher levels of social and family instability. That’s not the case, according to a study released today in PLOS ONE. Using US census data, anthropologists from the University of Utah tested the association between sex ratio imbalance and family outcomes across 2,800 counties in all 50 states. The study’s lead author, Ryan Schacht, explains the reasoning behind the counter-intuitive results they found.

RG: Could you explain the main findings of your research?

Schacht: Because men are more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of violence than women, the intuition among the public, journalists and researchers alike is that places with more men will experience more family and social instability. This is a straightforward numerical approach to social outcomes – that is, with an increasing glut of testosterone fueled men, you will get increasingly negative outcomes. Another point of view, however, argues that the behavior of men and women is responsive to their local mating pool – or what is referred to as a mating market, where economic principles of supply and demand hold sway. The expectation is, from a mating market approach, that when men are abundant and female partners are relatively rare, women can be more demanding of a potential partner and accordingly men will become more willing to settle down with and commit to a single long term partner.

In our study, we looked at the association between county-level sex ratios in the US and the percentage of married men and women in counties, the percentage of children born out of wedlock, and the percentage of all households that are female headed. We found that counties with more men than women had fewer unmarried men than counties with more women than men. This was interesting as the typical claim is that when you have a surplus of men, you will also have a surplus of unmarried men – because there just aren’t enough women to go around. These unmarried men are of particular concern because they are even more risk-prone than your average male, and more likely to engage in competitive and aggressive behavior, which in turn drives family and social instability. However, our research actually found the opposite.

ResearchGate: Why is it that certain states have more men than women?

Ryan Schacht: A significant reason is economic migration. Men are more likely to move to rural areas for occupations typically performed by men including mining, agricultural work, and ranching. Women, however, are more likely to stay or move to urban areas.

RG: Which states have the most skewed gender ratios?

Schacht: Alaska by far – it is known as the ‘last frontier’ here in the States. It is where many young men, mostly 18-30, move for temporary employment in industries such as fishing, mineral extraction, or offshore oil work. Western states are also generally more male biased  because of their history as frontier states and the economies that have since developed that attract more men for settlement. Meanwhile, some of the most female-biased states are in the south, including Mississippi and Alabama. However, this is not simply driven by male out-migration for work but has much to do with the very high incarceration rates of young, particularly minority, men.

sex ratio

RG: What led you to research the impact of unbalanced sex ratios?

Schacht: As a graduate student, I was interested in challenging stereotypical notions of gender roles, and that the behavior of men and women is largely biologically based. It is a common belief that women are more coy and choosy because they bear higher reproductive costs – so it is expected that they should be less interested in short term relationships and uncommitted sex, and that the opposite is true of men. Men are thought to be more ardent and interested in short term relationships, and this is also driven by biology – the act of reproduction is relatively very cheap for them. But what this ignores are the important environmental and social factors that play a role in determining what is optimal or rational behavior.

In my previous research, I found that sex ratios do matter – when women are abundant and men are rare, men and women have very different relationship preferences. However, when women are rare and men are abundant, this is when preferences and behavior align between both sexes and they want the same thing – long-term committed relationships with a single partner. So it’s about looking at gender in context.

RG: What real-world impacts could the findings of your research have?

Schacht: In general, I think our concern is pointed in the wrong direction, and we need to flip it. We are overly concerned with places with too many men when recent research across the social and biological sciences consistently finds that male-biased communities are not more violent and actually have higher rates of family and social stability than female-biased communities. Instead, our focus should be redirected to places with more women.

Featured image courtesy of Patrick.