When women in modern societies reach for their credit cards, what are they most likely to be purchasing? a) groceries, b) meals in restaurants, c) medicines, d) gifts for the kids? The correct answer is none of the above. Instead, women are most likely to whip out their Amex, Visa, or MasterCard to pay for new clothing. In the United States alone, women shell out well over $100 billion a year on fashion apparel. A hundred billion here, a hundred billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.
What stimulates women to stimulate the garment sector of the economy to the tune of a trillion a decade? Is it a charitable concern that the descendants Guccio Gucci not find themselves out on the streets begging for lire to buy a cup of cappuccino? Is it an aesthetic appreciation for the finer details of high thread count and double stitching? Obviously, the serious answer is to make themselves look more chic the next time they step out. But who is the intended audience, and when are women most likely to want to upgrade their costumes? Three studies by Kristina Durante and her colleagues suggest a partial answer to those questions, one linked to women’s ovulatory cycle and the presence of other attractive women.
Previous research has demonstrated that ovulating women experience a number of evolutionarily significant changes in their thoughts, feelings, and behavior. As I discussed in an earlier post (I Only Have Eyes for Your) ovulating women are more likely to stare at handsome men; they are also more likely to be attracted to symmetrical and dominant men, and to be more inclined to cheat on their current partner. Working with Vladas Griskevicius, Sarah Hill, Carin Perilloux, and Norm Li, Durante set out to examine whether those psychological shifts would translate into changes in women’s consumer behavior. The research team also examined whether any such changes would be influenced by the presence of either potential mates (attractive men) or potential competitors (attractive women).
To study these questions, the researchers recruited women who were regularly cycling, and who were not on any form of hormonal contraception. When women arrived at the lab, they were given a urine test to determine whether they were experiencing the surge in estrogen associated with ovulation. They were then asked to go shopping, visiting a virtual shopping website that presented them with a number of clothing items and/or fashion accessories (shoes, handbags, purses, etc.) They were told to choose 10 items they would most like to take home today. Half the items had been chosen to be sexy (though not blatantly so). A first study indicated that ovulating women were, as expected, more likely to choose sexy items.
A second study repeated the same task, except that before shopping, women were shown photos of either: 1) attractive women 2) unattractive women 3) attractive men, or 4) unattractive men. The results, depicted in the figure, indicated that women generally picked more sexy items when they had been primed to think about attractive men. That effect was not influenced by whether or not a woman was ovulating. However, ovulation did stimulate women to buy more sexy items when they had been primed to think about attractive women.
A third study again found that ovulating women were more likely to purchase sexy items when they had been primed with attractive women, but only if those women were locals (from the same university) and thus likely to be mating competitors. Attractive women from a university 1000 miles away did not inspire this ovulation-based surge in spending on sexy clothing.
The authors conclude that “ovulation leads women to want to dress to impress because the hormonal changes associated with fertility heighten female sensitivity to same-sex competition.” As the authors note, most women are not consciously aware of whether they are or are not ovulating, thus making it difficult to explain these findings in nonbiological terms. The results do not seem to be well-explained in terms of theories that emphasize women’s conscious desire to fulfill cultural role expectations, for example. Although ovulation is likely to be a nonconscious influence on women’s consumer behavior, it is not therefore an irrational one, but instead seems to be consistent with the notion that economic behaviors manifest what I've called “Deep Rationality.” I discussed this concept in two earlier postings: Deep Rationality, and Deep Rationality II: Conspicuous Consumption as a Mating Display. In the latter, I focused on findings showing that men’s conspicuous consumption is linked to mating in a very different way—inspired not by the desire to make themselves look sexier, but to make themselves look like they had money to burn. As Durante's findings suggest, women's mating based consumption seems inspired more by the desire to make their own persons look conspicuously hot, especially when there are other sexy women around who might otherwise make them look dull by comparison.
Durante, K.M., Griskevicius, V., Hill, S.E., Perilloux, C., Li, N. P. (2010). Ovulation, female competition, and product choice: Hormonal influences on consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, Released Online: DOI: 10.1086/656575.
Turner, Paul R. (2000), Differences in Spending Habits and Credit Use of College Students, Journal of Consumer Affairs, 34, 113–33.