Conspicuous consumption is the showy spending of money on goods that are actually not worth their listed price. A recent study evaluated whether such financial behavior is a form of sexual signaling. The study also evaluated whether such a sexual signal is involved in short-term commitments or long-term commitments. It was also assessed as to how the person of the opposite sex interprets such signals. The findings of this study “indicate conspicuous consumption functions as part of the mating signaling system. Men who purchase luxury goods are perceived as more attractive specifically as short-term, but not long-term partners.”
Researchers, giving a classic example of the peacock, hypothesized that although purchasing costly products is wasteful and disadvantageous, like the tail of a peacock, it helps immensely in attracting females for mating. In fact, some studies have shown that purchasing costly cars, such as a Porsche, led to elevated testosterone levels. “Parental investment” is the amount of effort that each parent offers in bringing up their offspring. Generally, this investment is less for males. This asymmetry in investments causes females to become more selective when choosing their sexual partners. “Conspicuous consumption” may serve as a signal, which shows that males are capable of absorbing the impact of significant costs. This experiment was carried out in two parts. In the first part, researchers examined the type of commitment that is stimulated by conspicuous consumption. In the second part, the perception of conspicuous consumption was assessed.
* The first part of the experiment involved 91 men and 152 women. They were divided into two groups. Participants of the first group were shown photographs of the opposite sex to elicit mating motives. For the second group, which was the control group, photos of a college dormitory were shown. Later, the participants were asked how they would spend $2,000.
* In the next phase of the experiment, the participants were divided into three groups. Short-term sex motive and long-term relationship motives were induced in two groups by making them read stories that highlighted respective types of relationships. The participants in the control group read a non-mating type of story. Later on, all of them were asked how much money they would spend on different objects.
* The second experiment involved 156 men and 252 women. A profile of two individuals who were similar in all aspects, except one possessed a Porsche (an expensive car) and the other a Honda Civic (non-conspicuous car), were shown to the participants. Then the participants were asked in what kind of relationship they would want to engage with each of the profiled people who were shown to them.
* Men, in whom mating motives were stimulated, wished to spend most of the amount of $2,000 on luxury goods. Such an observation was not found in women.
* The second part of the first experiment showed that, “spending on showy products is driven specifically by a motive for short-term mating (i.e., uncommitted romantic flings).”
* The results of the second experiment showed that conspicuous consumption by women prompted men to have short-term relationship with the women. Information that a man owned a conspicuous car did not enhance his desirability to women as a potential marriage partner. It was found that women felt that men with a Porsche are interested only in short-term sexual relationships.
In this study, it was hypothesized that conspicuous consumption is a kind of sexual signal. But an alternate theory shows that conspicuous consumption is a way of declaring economic success. Moreover, it should be noted that every conspicuous consumption behavior is not linked with the intent of a short-term sexual relationship. In this study, only undergraduate students from urban areas were involved. Hence, the findings of this study cannot be generalized.
“Overall, these findings suggest that flaunting status-linked goods to potential mates is not simply about displaying economic resources. Instead, conspicuous consumption appears to be part of a more precise signaling system focused on short-term mating.” One study has shown that everyone buys in any case one luxury product in their lifetime. In fact, the trend of conspicuous consumption dates back to the era of Egyptian pharaohs, Indian maharajas, and Incans. This study has highlighted that sexual intent may be one of the influencing factors in the purchase of costly products. Further studies in this regard are necessary to understand the factors influencing the decision-making of a consumer.
For More Information:
Conspicuous Consumption as a Sexual Signaling
Publication Journal: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, April 2011
By J. Sundie; D. Kenrick; University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas
*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.