Headcase

Thoughts on the mind.

The Status-Seeking Single Man

Are single men drawn to status-related items?

As an undergraduate I participated in a psychology experiment plucked from the dreams of Alfred Hitchcock. I was shown into a padded, echo-proof chamber with an octagonal platform in the center, then had a device placed on my head that looked like those flashlight-helmets that miners wear, except without the flashlight. Did I mention the room was pitch black?

The room was pitch black.

So there I was, in a pitch-black room with padded walls, standing on an octagonal platform, wearing my non-flashlight helmet. Occasionally a puff of sound would emerge from somewhere in the padded walls. My job was to point the part of my helmet that should have been a flashlight in the direction of the puff, then click a button. Sometimes this required tilting my head. Sometimes it required turning around. Sometimes it required so much movement that I fell off the platform and crashed to the floor, causing the experimenter to run in yelling about damaging the expensive non-flashlight helmet.

All right so I made that last part up. But the rest is true. Puff, tilt, click, repeat. For forty-five minutes. Did I mention the room was pitch black? The room was pitch black. Did I mention I was an undergraduate? The best years of your life, as they say. Or is that high school? Well the first or second best years. Either way. Sometimes when I left I heard puffs and tilted my head. It was that bad. People noticed.

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One day, late into a session, I got so frustrated that I began to tilt and click at random. Pretty soon I was clicking before the walls were even puffing. Immediately afterward I felt bad about skewing the data, until I realized that they were probably testing how long a human will try to locate a puff in a pitch black room until he gives up and begins to click at random.

That's not, it turned out, what they were testing.

Excuse me, Mr. Headcase, do you have a point?

Good question. The point is, I just finished reading an interesting paper (pdf here) in which students who signed up for a research study were led into a private cubicle by a "sexily dressed female experimenter" and left alone with her, for fifteen minutes, without any distractions (or even helmets, probably), because "it was important that the participants had a close look at the experimenter."

Kids these days get a quarter-hour of close contact with a mini skirt, high heels, and a bit of turquoise bra peeking through a dark brown tank-top. (There's a picture in the study.)

I got auditory hallucinations and neck pain.

The interesting paper, Mr. Headcase?

All right, all right. The study, done by a group of Belgian marketing researchers and released last year, needed the "sexily dressed female experimenter" to see what types of consumer products men prefer in the presence of a potential mate. As a counterpoint, the researchers also exposed half of the participants to a "plainly dressed" experimenter. Things take a twist when you realize ... it's the same experimenter! Did I mention there's a picture?

Mr. Headcase, please.

Yes, yes. Sure enough, in two studies—the first only with pictures—the researchers found that men in the presence of the "sexy" females instinctively took more interest in status-related items, such as expensive watches, than in bland ones, like coffee mugs. (The paper is called "Can Buy Me Love"; what's with the trend of naming papers after Beatles songs?)

Not exactly breaking news. But there's another twist, the researchers note:

Apparently, the presence of a sexily dressed female set off a process of heightened automatic attention for luxury and status-evoking products in men. Interestingly, in both studies, the effects were obtained for single men only. (emphasis mine)

While all participants gave the dolled-up experimenter higher attractiveness ratings, it appears that men involved in committed relationships are less tempted by the lure of luxury goods. This result conflicts somewhat with personal observations of attached men, but the researchers didn't gauge each man's level of commitment, which would have been interesting. Instead, they explain their finding thusly:

Because single men are more motivated to achieve their mate attraction goal, they will be particularly interested in those products that can facilitate meeting that goal. ... Hence, single men are both evaluative and perceptually ready to engage in conspicuous consumption, upon exposure to mating cues.

Another thing the study doesn't address, unfortunately, is whether Belgian waffles remain Belgian waffles in Belgium, or whether, once you're there, it's just plain waffles. Which I'll soon be able to answer for you, since I'm moving to Belgium.

(HT: Barker)

* Washington, D.C., natives will recognize the italicized alter-ego from the columns of Tony Kornheiser, before he made the tragically lucrative jump from print to television.

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Follow me on twitter: e_jaffe

Science writer Eric Jaffe has covered behavior for several years and is working on a book about psychiatry during World War II.

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