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Is There Really Such A Thing As A 'Trophy Wife'?

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's explore a pejorative phrase - trophy wife. That's the phrase that is used sometimes when a rich, older man marries a much poorer but attractive woman. As part of our series on The Changing Lives of Women, NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has come across some research asking how often the trophy wife phenomenon really happens. Shankar, welcome back to the program.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So, three words for you here - Anna Nicole Smith.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Famous model a few years ago who married a much, much, much older billionaire. This clearly does happen. Your question is how often it happens.

VEDANTAM: It does. And I'm also going to try and contrast anecdote with evidence, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK.

VEDANTAM: I spoke with Elizabeth McClintock. She's a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame. And she thinks that the trophy wife phenomenon is actually much, much rarer than most of us think. And her skepticism of the phenomenon grows out of the fact that one of the foundational observations in sociology is that when it comes to love and marriage and all kinds of other social relationships, birds of a feather tend to flock together.

ELIZABETH MCCLINTOCK: So if usually rich people marry rich people and pretty people marry pretty people, then having a pretty woman with no money marry an ugly, rich guy, that's a violation of the usual pattern that people select somebody who's a whole lot like themselves.

INSKEEP: OK. Usual pattern, but everybody can think of some example where something radically different has happened.

VEDANTAM: Yes. And in fact there have been lots of academic studies as well that if you look at just the universe of pretty women in heterosexual relationships, pretty women tend to be with rich guys. And evolutionary psychologists for example have argued this makes sense. Women are trading one asset, their good looks, for another asset, which is status. McClintock thinks this earlier work is wrong for two reasons. First, the earlier studies don't consider this important variable, which is the pretty women might themselves be well-off. So if a woman herself has wealth or status, what you really don't have is a trophy wife phenomenon. All you have is matching rich with rich.

INSKEEP: OK. So wait a minute. So you're taking a closer look at this person you randomly saw on television or walking down the street. You might make assumptions about them, but you should look again. Maybe the woman is a closer match for the man than she seems.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And McClintock points out there's another confounding variable here, which is that beauty and wealth often tend to go hand in hand. And that's because the wealthy often have access to better nutrition, better cosmetics. But it's also the case the wealthy are defining what beautiful is. So it used to be in America being plump was beautiful at a time when only the rich could be plump. But if wealth and beauty are actually going hand in hand really often it could be that lots of pretty women might themselves be rich, which again means they might not be trophy wives.

INSKEEP: OK. So that gets us back to the basic question. How often do you really have a trophy wife situation where radically different people seem to get together in this way?

VEDANTAM: That's right. So McClintock analyzed a survey that tracked a representative sample of American couples - 1500 couples in dating relationships, cohabiting relationships, marriage relationships. And what she found is that once you control for the fact that pretty woman might herself be well-off or that a rich guy might himself be good-looking, the trophy wife phenomenon effectively disappears. What you see is the rich hooking up with the rich, the pretty hooking up with the pretty. Now, that doesn't mean to say there aren't examples of the trophy wife, but our belief in the theory might say more about our minds than actual reality. Here's McClintock again.

MCCLINTOCK: It is true sometimes. People notice it when it happens, and they don't notice it when it does not happen. And so, you know, you could be sitting at a cafe on a crowded street watching couples go by and 1,000 might pass where they're equally good-looking. And then the one couple passes, you know, where she's hot and he's some old guy, and you're like, oh, wow, trophy wife.

INSKEEP: Oh, now that's interesting because the person who says trophy wife in that situation in the cafe is making a judgment about that couple, really. But in fact, we're learning more about the judger.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, Steve. And in fact, if you look only at the universe of good-looking guys, you will also see that good-looking men tend to be with rich women, but we are far less likely to say, oh, look, trophy husband. And so of course that's a reflection of what's happening inside our own heads not actual reality.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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