Thursday, December 24, 2009

Engagement Rings

There was a spicy facebook conversation going on about engagement rings, so I decided to hop on the train (detailed below). See the original conversation at
Or facebook Austin Baird, then click "Selfishness in engagements - to you girls" in his "Notes" section.

"Though the ineluctable tides of cultural norms will continue to lap happily on shores of social behavior despite the bulwark of well-reasoned, rationally based arguments like those Austin and others forward, for now, I think I'll hop on the bulwark! Considering how relatively isolated the expensive enagagement ring tradition is in the global and historical culture context (how frequent is the tradition's incidence over the thousands of cultures and last 6 millenia of human history?), the tradition should be viewed as little more than an arbitrary norm. Yes, the norm creates real expectations, the fulflillment or failure of which brings real sets of relational consequences, and yes, the expenditure and sacrifice can communicate commitment and love when both partners choose to perceive the gift of the ring as such. However, it would be equally valid for one or both partners to view compliance with the norm as a mere capitulation to the omnipotent zeitgeist that most of us elect to submit to in thousands of other contexts. (read the part starting with "What you are seeing and hearing right now is nothing but a dream")
From the perspective that doing the whole expensive engagement ring thing is just agreement with our own domestication ("if he doesn't ask me the 'right way'" is meaningless inasmuch as the "right way" is arbitrary), the evaluation of the norm then appropriately turns to a cost/benefit analysis of consequence bundles. In my view that's what Austin's original note began to do.
(Course of action A- do the expensive engagement ring thing. Course of action B- get engaged and married some other way)
Course of action A consequence bundleDisadvantages:Austin et alii point out that 1) normative obsession with the ring inappropriately removes focus from the foundation of the relationship, which is: the past shared experiences with, present feelings for, and future hopes and commitments of, the bride and groom to be. Certainly the attendent engagement ring expectations distract from the substance of a proposal and engagement: the relationship and the partners. They also identify the 2) deindividuation that results from the more limited scope of engagement rings as a means of marriage proposal when compared to the unlimited scope of creatively personalized means. Since love and marriage are so uniquely individual, it follows that the proposal appropriately departs from indiscriminate, tightly bracketed behavioral norms. Austin et al.'s 3) awareness of the negative fiscal impacts of financing a costly object of such pitiable inherent utility at a difficult financial stage for one or both partners highlights a third significant disadvantage. I would add that all three of these negative consequences adhere to both partners. Advantages: If the girl ranks gifts high on her love language list (, then the ring will prove a deposit in the relationship/love bank account. This advantage assumes she is part of the subset of gift love languagers that derives utility from at least the paid price of the gift itself rather than the a) intention of giver or the b) value of the present (i.e. a perfectly good ring the groom found on the side of the road brings her far less utiltiy than one he exchanged thousands of greenbacks for.)
Course of action B consequence bundleAdvantages/disdvantages:It depends on the proposal means he selects.
@Miichael Nascimento- I find your position about the "Lingo Effect" a strong one in that humans are naturally very needy in the self-esteem department and therefore accept all types of external validators (including the admittedly shallow possession of a certain type of small, hard, and shiny object) to serve as planks in the platform of their self-confidence. However, as Austin argues, that same person might choose to delude/substantiate oneself with other equally plausible planks, such as the words of the proposal itself or other tangible or intangible tokens from the partner. "

Subsequent post a couple weeks later:
Alcohol. Cocaine. Peacock tails. Expensive engagement rings. What do they all have in common? They all help females in the competitive business of sexual selection. Let me explain what I mean.

Poisonous, addictive drugs like alcohol and cocaine are similar to peacock tails and gazelle stotting in effect because they serve as an indicator of fitness. Imagine for a moment that you're a female peacock, and you want to pick only the most fit male to mate with to give your progeny the best possible chance of surviving in the resource-scarce, predator-rich environment they will inherit. Choosing from amongst adult males is a good place to start, since those male peacocks who lived to adulthood must have something going for them. Of course those are the only ones available (the ones that died in childhood make terrible mates), and if you don't choose from the cream of the crop, another female will and her offspring will have the advantage. So what do you look to? Maybe if he's a handsome peacock? That might set him apart, because not all peacocks are equally handsome- but handsomeness doesn't help your offspring survive. A pretty face doesn't help your baby peacocks find more food, overcome disease, or escape/avoid predators more. Plus, if you choose the handsome one, you create an incentive for cheating: those with poor genes will invest in a pretty face, making it just as likely to choose a cheater as the real deal. How about a snazzy, impressive song or dance? Same problem- the trait is an effective discriminator, but won't bequeath the genetic building blocks for a Rocky Balboa clutch because singing and dancing aren't that useful in the fight for survival. Isn't there some kind of "signal" of fitness you could look to as a guide?

There is! And many animals exhibit them. They're handicaps: counter-intuitive impediments to fitness, such as long peacock tail feathers or gazelle stotting. Gazelles will often slow down and jump up and down when a lion approaches (stotting). It would make more sense to run for your life when a lion approaches- but these gazelles don't. Stotting communicates "don't even try to catch me, I'm a super-fast gazelle. And to prove it, I'm not running like mad when you get close. Check out how spry I am." And the lion saves his effort for a slower gazelle. Similarly, extra long peacock tails impede the bird when it's fleeing from predators by its weight, not to mention the comparative disadvantage of growing and carrying the burdensome things around 24/7. These indicators all work BECAUSE OF, not in spite of, their handicapping effects. You can't cheat when you've got an obvious handicap. They signal "look at me- I'm so successful I can make it even with this handicap." Similarly, though smoking or taking alcohol or cocaine obviously reduces your ability to perform sexually or physically, it does send the message- "check it out, I'm so healthy I can regularly consume poison and still outcompete the next guy." You can't fake a handicap! It's an honest sign of fitness.

Similarly, the engagement ring is a very conspicuous indicator females use in sexual selection. Everyone knows how much it costs- you can't fake it! The ring says, "I'm so successful at amassing resources, I can drop G's on this inherently worthless, tiny object without batting an eye." Resource amassing is a useful to survival; thus, the utility and perpetuation of the indicator.

I credit Jared Diamond (irony in the last name, no?) for these ideas as articulated in chapter 11 of "The Third Chimpanzee.

1 comment:

  1. Y'know, speaking of arbitrary traditions, let's talk Christmas. Now, the Christmas holiday consequence bundle I think fares far better than the expensive engagement ring tradition's consequence bundle in a cost/benefit analysis. I think children especially reap richness and utilty from the modern observation of this tradition.

    There's also more validity to the holiday inasmuch as the birth of Christ was an actual event and merits recognition and remembrance. However, the birth probably didn't take place in 1 A.D., quite likely took place in April rather than December, and the current consumer, santa, and family centered worship during the Christmas season suggest that the contemporary observation of Christmas follows most cultural norms in that it drifts towards senseless as to its fidelity to a meaningful origin. It also has, like most traditions, taken on a widely diverse life of its own, imposing occasionally strange, albeit they stringent, expectations on individuals and families (decorating the house, Christmas trees, enjoying and displaying lights, obligatory gift exchanging, families coming together, shopping, etc.).

    Okay, I'm done.


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