It was love at first sight. When Cinderella arrived at the ball, no woman in the room could compete with the beauty in the gossamer gown. They could only watch the most eligible bachelor in the kingdom swoon over the stranger. Fate deemed that Cinderella would drop her designer glass shoe when she abruptly left the party. With slipper in hand, Prince Charming set off to find his soul mate. Cinderella’s fairy Godmother not only helped Cinderella get her man but she may have been thinking about how to keep him too. The exclusive fairytale fashion, including custom tailored shoes, bore a message to the evil stepsisters who watched the Prince celebrate his new princess—keep away, he is Cinderella’s.
In a series of experiments Yajin Wang and Vladas Griskevicius explored how women used luxury goods (Fendi, Gucci, Prada and the like) to guard their mate from other women. In the pilot study they asked 76 women, selected from Amazon’s MTurk program, a series of questions based on the following: “Do you think some women might judge that your partner [cares about you more] [is more committed to you] when they see you wearing [a designer] [more expensive] outfit and jewelry?” More than half of the participants said yes to all the questions. It did not matter if they were “currently single, dating, in a committed relationship, or married.” Five small studies later, the authors found support for the idea that some women display opulent possessions to ward off other women looking to poach their partner. Moreover, women were less likely to pursue a man if his partner wore luxury items and they believed that he contributed to their purchase.
These findings are fascinating, but as Wang and Griskevicius point out the study has its flaws. The authors had to rely on their participant’s imagination and used answers to questions about how the women thought they would behave under threat. They did not observe their real actions. The sample was limited too. These were American, heterosexual women. Would the results be similar across cultures or in same sex relationships? What about political persuasion?
As important as these methodological issues are, they distract us from what may be the most interesting aspect of these studies—the social quality of stuff. Perhaps the consumption illustrated by these women is conspicuous, but from their perspective it is not frivolous. For the root of their behavior is social anxiety involving love and status. In Wang and Griskevicius' study, mate guarding with a splash of splendor prevailed only when another woman threatened to arouse her male partner; then the bigger the display the better. So if there be fairy godmothers, this season we might pass on the fancy party dress and ask for the gift of emotional security.
Wang, Y. & Griskkevicius, V. (2014). Journal of Consumer Research, February (40), DOI: 10.1086/673256