“Why is there so much makeup for sale?” my son asked as we walked past aisle after aisle of cosmetics in a department store we braved for back-to-school shopping. “Because there are so many people in the world,” I hypothesized. But a series of experiments reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology offers another explanation, showing how a person’s desire to attract mates “with resources” raises demand for beauty products, particularly in tough economic times.

Researchers led by Sarah E. Hill of Texas Christian University conducted a series of studies they say are the first empirical demonstrations of “the lipstick effect”—that is, the conventional wisdom that under harsh economic conditions, women cut corners on higher priced items and spend instead on products to boost their attractiveness to men, hoping to compete better in the “market” for mates. Using both historical spending data and rigorous experiments, the team found that environmental cues of economic recession—whether naturally occurring or experimentally primed—consistently increased women’s desire to purchase products that could enhance their appearance.

Specifically, in one study described in the article, “Boosting Beauty in an Economic Decline: Mating, Spending, and the Lipstick Effect,” 82 women and 72 men read a vivid article describing dire economic conditions. Afterwards the women were more likely to show a significantly stronger desire to purchase lipstick, form-fitting jeans, and form-fitting black dresses (6.17 on a 7 point scale), compared with a control group which read a neutral article (4.97 on the scale).

The authors explain the effect by saying that difficult economic conditions prompt women to increase their attractiveness to financially sound potential partners, the supply of which falls in recessions. Evolution may be responsible, since humans coped throughout history with cycles of abundance and famine by placing a priority on securing a resourceful mate. Also, today the cost of raising children is so steep, purchasing lipstick and other appearance enhancements looks economically rational for women who become mothers, which most do. 

Then again, with mothers increasingly becoming major breadwinners in households today, it was surprising that the men in the study did not exhibit a propensity to enhance their appearance to woo females. This may change soon for my son’s demographic, if another “mancession” hits, judging from new advertising campaigns like Gillette’s first-in-112-years, where women decide what’s manly in the opposite sex.



About the Author

Nanette Fondas
Nanette Fondas. D.B.A., M.Phil, is co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace: Choose When, Where, and How to Work and Boost Your Bottom Line.

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