Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

Why Do Men Buy Corvettes?

Once again, sex affects our economic behavior.

We all know about the cliché of the middle-aged man who responds to a “mid-life crisis” by buying a Corvette. It appears that when men feel their virility and attractiveness waning, they respond by finding some way to show that they still have what it takes to be a good mate. In evolutionary terms, this is called costly signaling. Men are signaling that they are still viable mates.

So, why do men buy Corvettes? Because women are attracted to high-status products. 

First, researchers in the Netherlands found that simply reminding men of mating opportunities (by showing them pictures of attractive women) increased their desire for status goods. When men  want to mate with attractive women, they think of buying things which display their mate value.

Second, researchers in Montreal found that when men engage in conspicuous consumption — when they buy the Corvette — they actually experience a surge of testosterone (interested readers might wish to check out Dr. Saad's PT blog entry where he discusses this testosterone study). So, the plot thickens! But then the question then is: do women even notice or care?

In short, yes. A recent study by Belgian scientists found that when women are in the fertile stage of their menstrual cycle, they actually pay more attention and are more attracted to high status products. Women who are not in their fertile phase do not. Women who are on the pill (which disrupts the normal menstrual cycle) also do not care so much about status consumption. These results are consistent with other findings that women in their fertile phase rate masculine men as more attractive. Women in their fertile phase are also more likely than others to cheat on their partners, but only with men who are considered more physically attractive than the guy they are in a relationship with.

So, we now know that men who are reminded of mating opportunities are motivated to signal their mate value through conspicuous consumption; we also know that when they do they become more mating-ready. Finally, however much we might think this strategy is shallow and crass, it appears to be a reasonably good one, because when women are in their fertile reproductive phase, they are actually more susceptible to this conspicuous consumption ploy.

Once again, sex — or the possibility of sex affects our economic behavior in ways that we normally would not be aware of.

Beyond The Purchase is a website dedicated to understanding the psychology behind spending decisions and the relationship between money and happiness. We study how factors like your values and personality interact with spending decisions to affect your happiness. At Beyond The Purchase you can take quizzes that help you understand what motivates your spending decisions, and you’ll get personalized feedback and tips. For example:

How do you score on the five fundamental dimensions of personality? Take our Big Five personality test and find out.

How do you feel about your past, present, and future? Take the Time Attitudes Survey and learn about your relation with time.

How happy are your Facebook updates? We can analyze your last 25 Facebook status updates and determine how happy you have been.

How happy is your subconscious? Take our Happiness IAT and find out.

With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness. To read more about the connection between money and happiness, go to the Beyond the Purchase blog.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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