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.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we help people understand the relationship between money and happiness. To better understand the benefits of specific consumer choices, we continue to investigate the relationships between consumer preferences, psychological needs, happiness, and values at our website by allowing people to take tests on personality. To learn about what might be influencing how you think about and spend your money, register with Beyond The Purchase, then take a few of our personality quizzes:

Which spending decisions will make you happiest? Take our Spending Choices and Happiness survey and on your feedback page you will learn how to spend your money to be happier.

With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness. Responses to these surveys will also help researchers further understand the connection between money and happiness.

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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