Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

What Really Inspires a Woman to Go Shopping?

Do potential mates actually find “costly signal” attractive?

When men engage in acts of conspicuous consumption, they experience a surge of testosterone, which prepares them for a (hoped for) liaison by increasing sexual desire, confidence, and aggression. The crucial piece of the puzzle, of course, is whether or not potential mates actually find this “costly signal” of the man’s status attractive. 

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Research suggests that it just might. When women are ovulating they are more susceptible to status signals. Not only that, but when women are fertile, they are also more likely to engage in conspicuous displays of their own. For women, though, the conspicuous display is more personal than for men. Women tend to spend more money on clothing and wear more revealing, sexier clothing when they are ovulating. From an evolutionary perspective, that makes sense. Sexying things up and attracting the best mates when you are most likely to become pregnant probably served women well over the course of our history.

So, both sexes are playing the mating game, but for men the display is about social status, while for women it’s about fertility.

Given the economic implications of all of this mating-related consumption, a team of researchers  (Kristina Durante, Vladas Griskevicius, Sarah Hill, Carin Perilloux, and Norman Li) wondered how the economy might affect women’s spending. They found their first hint in some surprising historical economic data. During the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the country was in economic ruin, the ladies’ cosmetics industry boomed. This could have been for any number of reasons. However, a significant body of prior research has also shown that when women perceive competition for mating opportunities (either lots of other women or a shortage of desirable men), they tend to spend more money on appearance-enhancing items — fashion, cosmetics and the like.

Therefore, the researchers devised a study in which both ovulating and non-ovulating women were shown a set of photographs. The photographs women were shown contained either attractive women, attractive men, or less attractive women or less attractive men. The women in the experiment were then asked to make choices on a shopping website set up for the purposes of the study. 

What researchers found was that only when ovulating women were “primed” with attractive other women did they choose significantly sexier items from the store. Non-ovulating women’s choices weren’t affected by the photos of the attractive women, and ovulating women’s choices weren’t affected by pictures of men, attractive or not.

So, connecting all the dots, the researchers concluded that when women perceive there to be competition for mating opportunities, they sexy up their wardrobe. Something as seemingly unrelated as the state of the economy may lead women to perceive that the pool of available, attractive men is smaller, and thus, the competition for those mates stronger. Just when many can least afford it, they may feel the urge to splurge in order to sexy up their wardrobe to compete for that smaller pool of high status men.

The moral of this story for women, then, is that if you are ovulating and feel a sudden urge to splurge on sexy clothes or high-end cosmetics, consider waiting until the feeling (and that time of the month) passes.

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.

The article referenced above is called, “Ovulation, female competition, and product choice: Hormonal influences on consumer behavior,” and appeared in the April, 2011 edition ofThe Journal of Consumer Research37(6), 921–934.

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

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