Amounts Spent on Engagement Rings Reflect Aspects
of Male and Female Mate Quality
Lee Cronk &Bria Dunham
Published online: 27 September 2007
#Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2007
Abstract Previous research has shown that the qualities of nuptial gifts among
nonhumans and marriage-related property transfers in human societies such as
bridewealth and dowry covary with aspects of mate quality. This article explores this
issue for another type of marriage-related property transfer: engagement rings. We
obtained data on engagement ring costs and other variables through a mail survey
sent to recently married individuals living in the American Midwest. This article
focuses on survey responses regarding rings that were purchased by men acting
alone and using only their own funds who then presented the rings while making
surprise proposals of marriage (n=127). Men marrying younger women spent more
on rings, as did men who earned more money and whose fiancées earned more
money. These findings suggest that the amounts spent on engagement rings, like
bridewealth and dowry payments in other societies, reflect aspects of both male and
female mate quality.
Keywords Courtship .Mating .Engagement rings .Marriage .Nuptial gifts .
Nuptial gifts and courtship feeding can be found among insects (Vahed 1998), other
invertebrates (e.g., Huber 2005), and some vertebrates (e.g., Mougeot et al. 2006).
The quality of such gifts has been shown in some cases to correlate with aspects of
male mate quality (e.g., immunocompetence: Fedorka et al. 2005). Roughly
analogous to such gifts are the many types of property transfers that occur before,
during, and after marriage across human societies. These, too, have been
demonstrated to correlate with aspects of both male and female mate quality. For
example, men among the agropastoralist Kipsigis of Kenya pay higher bridewealths
when marrying younger women (Borgerhoff Mulder 1988), and the cross-cultural
Hum Nat (2007) 18:329–333
L. Cronk (*):B. Dunham
Department of Anthropology and Center for Human Evolutionary Studies, Rutgers University,
131 George Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-1414, USA
distribution of dowry has been found to reflect competition among females for
access to wealthy males (Gaulin and Boster 1990).
Wedding rings have been known since ancient times, and engagement rings were
given as long ago as the Middle Ages (Brinig 1990), but the latter have become
popular only relatively recently. Rothman (1984:161) traces the beginnings of the
engagement ring custom in the United States to the 1840s, though at that time they
were given to men as well as to women. The current pattern whereby the man buys an
expensive ring, usually including a diamond, to give to his fiancée when they become
engaged became widespread only in the twentieth century. Brinig (1990; see also
Tushnet 1998) argues that this was the result of marital law reforms that swept the
United States between 1935 and 1945. Before that time, it was possible in most states to
sue for damages in the event of a brokenengagement. Brinig argues that the elimination
of such breach-of-promise actions created a demand for another bonding device, and
she suggests that diamond engagement rings filled that need. Diamond engagement
rings have remained popular in the United States since that time, with around three-
quarters of all first-time brides receiving them even when premarital cohabitation rates
increased in the 1960s and 1970s (Brinig 1990; Rothman 1984:310).
Although others have speculated that engagement ring costs may correlate with
such aspects of mate quality as commitment (Camerer 1988) and resource control
(Miller 2000), no systematic research from an evolutionary perspective has yet been
conducted on them. This article presents findings from a project designed to help
close this gap in our understanding of marriage-related property transfers. Sexual
selection theory (Darwin 1871; Trivers 1972) leads straightforwardly to the broad
prediction that amounts spent on rings will reflect aspects of male and female mate
quality. More specifically, we predict that the amounts men spend on engagement
rings will increase with their own incomes and those of their fiancées and decrease
with increasing female age. Many previous studies (e.g., Pawłowski and Dunbar
1999) have found male income to be a major component of mate preferences, a
finding that conforms to the evolutionary hypothesis that females seek mates who
are willing and able to invest in offspring. Likewise, female youth has been
predicted (Kenrick and Keefe 1992) and found (e.g., Borgerhoff Mulder 1988;
Buunk et al. 2001) to be a component of male mate preferences, which makes
evolutionary theoretical sense in light of female age’s relationship to reproductive
potential. There is less theory and evidence regarding the impact of female resource
control on male mate preferences, but Gaulin and Boster’s (1990) study of dowry
shows that male as well as female mate choice can be influenced by a prospective
mate’s control of resources.
We sent questionnaires to 1,000 couples married between June and November, 2001,
in Franklin County, Ohio. The narrow time frame enables us to disregard economic,
social, and cultural changes that take place over longer periods. Franklin County has
a total population of 1.1 million people and maintains its marriage license records
online (http://www.co.franklin.oh.us/probate/). We sent only one survey per
household so that each would provide information about a different marriage. The
330 Hum Nat (2007) 18:329–333
questionnaire elicited information about the age, income, and marital status of the
individual responding and of his or her spouse as well as information about their
courtship, their engagement, the engagement ring if one was given, and their
wedding ceremony. Surveys were accompanied by stamped, self-addressed
envelopes for anonymous return; 255 surveys were returned by the post office as
undeliverable and 256 were returned by recipients, yielding a response rate of 34%.
This compares favorably with the 20% or lower response rates typical for
unsolicited, anonymous mail surveys that offer minimal compensation and that
involve no re-mailings or other reminders (Blumberg et al. 1974; Bourque and
Fielder 1995:15). Of the surveys, 33% were returned by males and 67% by females.
Some couples shopped for their engagement rings together or used the wife’s or
common funds to cover some or all of the cost of the ring. Because our interest in
rings is grounded in the analogy with nuptial gifts among nonhumans, our analysis
here is limited to marriages in which either no ring was given (n=13) or in which the
ring was given by the man at the time he made a surprise proposal of marriage (n=
114). Table 1provides descriptive statistics for this group.
Table 2presents the results of a linear regression model with the cost of the ring
in dollars as the dependent variable and male income, female income, and female
age, all at the time the proposal was made, as independent variables. All three
independent variables have statistically significant effects, and together they explain
36% of the variance in ring cost. These overall results are replicated in subsamples
based on the sex of the respondent, making it unlikely that the patterns observed in
Table 1 Descriptive statistics
Mean Median SD Range
Cost of ring ($) 3,531.72 3,000 3,262.76 0–20,000
Man’s annual income ($) 41,858.20 34,000 49,231.53 0–500,000
Woman’s annual income ($) 28,667.48 26,000 19,602.15 0–80,000
Man’s age 29.4 25.9 10.7 18–90
Woman’s age 27.0 24.1 9.6 16–82
Income and age figures are for the time the proposal of marriage was made.
Table 2 Multiple linear regression model
Independent variable Standardized regression coefficient t
Men’s income 0.509 6.221*
Women’s income 0.305 3.432**
Female age −0.318 −3.662*
The dependent variable is the cost of the ring.
Hum Nat (2007) 18:329–333 331
the whole sample reflect female ignorance about male income or actual ring costs or
male ignorance about female income.
Like nuptial gifts among nonhumans and previously studied marriage-related
property transfers in human societies, amounts spent on engagement rings reflect
aspects of the mate quality of both the giver and the recipient in ways that conform
to predictions derived from sexual selection theory. Specifically, younger females
and females with higher incomes are given more expensive rings, and males with
higher incomes give more expensive rings.
The effect of female youth on ring cost is in line with many other studies of the
mate preferences of human males and with expectations derived from sexual
selection theory regarding those preferences (see Schmitt 2005 for a recent review).
The effect of female income on ring cost suggests that like males in societies with
dowry (Gaulin and Boster 1990), males in our sample see female resource control as
a component of female mate quality. We do not know, however, whether males are
responding to the income itself, characteristics associated with income (e.g., a
willingness and capacity to work hard), or some combination of the two.
Male income has the strongest effect on ring cost. Although this is not surprising
in light of a general correlation between men’s incomes and the amounts they spend
on consumer goods, it is still an important finding. While the cost of a ring might tell
a woman little that she does not already know about a man’s income, the fit between
a man’s overall spending habits and the cost of an engagement ring he offers might
give a woman valuable information about his willingness to commit to the
relationship and invest in her and her offspring.
Because our sample came from marriage license records, it is limited to cases in
which the proposal of marriage was accepted. Future studies of engagement ring
expenditures should try to include cases in which men and women proposed
marriage and were turned down, sometimes buying rings and sometimes not.
Although the brevity of our questionnaire may have had its intended effect of
increasing our response rate, it also limited us to only two indicators of mate quality:
income and age. Future studies should seek to include more indicators of mate
quality, such as waist-hip ratio (Singh 1993), fluctuating asymmetry (Van Valen
1962), facial masculinity and femininity (Perrett et al. 1998), sociosexuality
(Simpson and Gangestad 1991), and other aspects of behavior and personality.
Acknowledgements Funding for this project was provided by the Center for Human Evolutionary
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Lee Cronk is a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He is the
author of That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior (Westview Press, 1999)
and From Mukogodo to Maasai: Ethnicity and Cultural Change in Kenya (Westview Press, 2004).
Bria Dunham is a graduate student in anthropology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New
Jersey. She is interested in mate choice and courtship signaling in humans.
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