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Parents Spend More on Girls Than on Boys in a Recession

Sorry, son — that’s for your sister.

Sorry, son — that’s for your sister.

New research finds that parents are more likely to spend money on girls than boys when the economy is shaky. The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that evolutionary biology kicks in when times are tight and parents have limited resources to allocate to their kids.

When subjects in the researchers’ experiments were primed to think of an economy in recession, they showed a greater likelihood to leave more to girls in their wills. They also were more inclined to spend money on healthy lunches, extracurricular activities and braces for girls.

An analysis of spending on kids’ clothes and GDP found that the ratio of spending on girls went up by almost 20 percent when the economy was bad. “What’s happening is ...parents are sort of dialing back on boys and ramping up on girls,” said Kristina Durante, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas, San Antonio.

Durante called this a “reproductive investment” in the paper. Historically, boys had a greater likelihood of growing to adulthood and never having kids. Girls were more likely to give their parents grandchildren, which made investing in them a safer bet. “For boys, their reproductive fitness is more strongly tied to their status than girls,” Durante said.

In one experiment that controlled for age, the researchers found that parents are more likely to allocate resources to teenage girls than boys, although there’s no difference when the kids are infants.

“It’s not something that parents are consciously aware of,” Durante said. Most parents say they treat their kids equally, she said. “But at the same time, we know that parents do bias… In our study, we were picking up on a bias that is operating at an unconscious level.” Although living conditions today are less dangerous than they were for most of human history, centuries’ worth of evolutionary biology is hard to shake.

“I think it is a holdover from being very sensitive to cues about resource depleting,” Durante said. “There hasn’t been enough time for selection to completely eradicate the bias.”


-- Martha C. White