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The Lipstick Effect: How Boom or Bust Effects Beauty

Psychologists investigate whether recessions reveal female mating strategy.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

By Raj Persaud and Esther Rantzen

Sales figures from one of the world's largest cosmetics companies, L'Oreal, revealed that during 2008, a year when the rest of the economy suffered record declines in sales, the cosmetics leviathan experienced sales growth of 5.3%.

Now a series of psychology experiments have confirmed for the first time that while tougher economic times decrease desire for most items, they also reliably increase women's yearning for products that boost their attractiveness.

Psychologists contend that this "lipstick effect" is operating largely below conscious awareness of men and women, and therefore require precise experiments to reveal them. The results suggest this phenomenon is driven by women's desire to attract mates with resources.

The authors of the study, Sarah Hill, Christopher Rodeheffer, Vladas Griskevicius, Kristina Durante, and Andrew Edward White, argue that over evolutionary history, our human ancestors regularly went through cycles of abundance and famine. This has genetically disposed us toward prioritising mate-seeking when times get tough, as passing on our genes becomes a greater priority in harsher environments.

For example, wars are known for moments of most intense romance.

Women's reproductive success through history, according to evolutionary theory, rests on their ability to secure a partner able to invest resources in themselves and their offspring. An economic recession may signal that financially stable men are becoming scarcer, so women should, according to evolutionary theory, compete more ferociously for richer men during financially tougher times.

The study, entitled "Boosting Beauty in an Economic Decline: Mating, Spending, and the Lipstick Effect," examined monthly fluctuations in U.S. unemployment over the last 20 years and found when unemployment increased, people allocated smaller portions of their monthly spending budgets on electronics or leisure/hobby products. Yet relative spending on personal care/cosmetics products also went up.

But was this men or women who were buying cosmetics or personal care products? In another part of this study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology when men read a news article about a recent economic recession, they developed less desire to purchase consumer products in general. When women read the same magazine article on a recession, in comparison with reading an article on modern architecture, unlike men, their desire to purchase products that could enhance appearance, including lipstick, increased.

In another part of the series of experiments, undergraduate unmarried women were prompted to reflect about economic recessions by viewing a slideshow entitled, "The New Economics of the 21st Century: A Harsh and Unpredictable World." This portrayed the current state of the US economy, including unemployment lines, home foreclosure signs, and empty office buildings. In the comparison condition of the experiment, participants viewed a slideshow titled, Making the Grade: No Longer a Walk in the Park. This slideshow represented students working to meet stringent academic requirements imposed by college administrators.

As predicted, the recession slideshow led women to report much more wanting members of the opposite sex to perceive them as pretty, that it is important to look good, and to report caring much more about how attractive they look. So, economic recession reminders mean women become more concerned with looking physically attractive to men.

Women viewing the economic recession slides also placed a significantly greater emphasis on a potential relationship partner's access to financial resources.

But does the "lipstick effect" reflect women in recessions being drawn to cheap pleasures, such as lipstick, rather than expensive indulgences? If women believe that an expensive luxury product will make them more desirable to men, recessions should still increase women's desire for that product (according to evolutionary theory).

To this end, the psychologists reminded women about the recession and measured their interest in purchasing luxury "attractiveness enhancement" products (e.g., designer jeans) and two classes of inexpensive control products: low-cost indulgences that don't enhance attractiveness (e.g., coffee) and discount brand versions of the attractiveness-enhancement products (e.g., jeans from Walmart).

The findings of the experiment, conducted by psychologists from Texas Christian University, University of Minnesota, University of Texas at San Antonio, and Arizona State University, are that the "lipstick effect" is about seeking products that are more effective at enhancing attractiveness, even if such products cost more.

Another theory is the "lipstick effect" simply reflects greater financial desperation in a recession. Because resources, historically at least, tend to be controlled by men, the psychologists conducting these experiments reasoned, economic recessions should prompt women to attract wealthy mates specifically as a means to financial support.

The psychologists found from their experiments that the "lipstick effect" is not driven specifically by impoverished women lacking access to resources of their own - it applied powerfully to all women no matter what their own financial predicament was. In other words, women who were better off were still vulnerable to the "lipstick effect." This might suggest this extraordinary effect is operating below conscious awareness, and is genetically hard-wired into brains, because of evolutionary history.

This fits with the theory that evolution has wired into our genes and brains the reflexive tendency to prioritise mating during tougher times, as there may not be much time left to do this. Greater "goal immediacy" of mating combined with diminished access to "high-quality" (i.e., richer) mates, combines to prompt much fiercer mate attraction efforts in women, during recessionary times.

The psychologists speculated that if economic recessions increase the premium women place on a man's access to resources, men may become more competitive to garner these resources.

For instance, a harsh economic climate might lead better-off men, particularly those seeking romantic partners, to flaunt their wealth more conspicuously to attract mates at this time. Another possibility is recessionary conditions may lead men who are unable to maintain steady employment, to be more likely to resort to lying, cheating, or stealing as a means of resource acquisition.

The authors also speculate that recessions could mean women's willingness to take attractiveness-enhancement risks (e.g., extreme dieting, tanning, or cosmetic surgery) also goes up unhelpfully. It might even promote greater hostility towards other women.

This research suggests some hitherto unexpected impacts of recessions on women. They may have a negative impact on women's health, and the quality and durability of their female friendships.

Women often cheer themselves up during tough times by 'pampering' with a treat, and one of the cheapest ways remains buying lipstick. Applying it, smiling at the mirror, sends women away into a harsher world with a spring in their step.

So the "lipstick effect" could be no more than just women's natural instinct to counteract the depressing effect of the recession.

But even if the 'lipstick effect' is not about women needing to find a rich man during tougher times, given the pressure on the household purse, when families struggle to cope with necessary spending on food and rent, many women may conceal the fact that they are also buying products as frivolous as cosmetics - hiding the truth even from themselves.

Although the "lipstick effect" theoretically relates to all cosmetics, or anything that enhances female attractiveness, lipstick itself might be particularly 'primal', unique in its ability to immediately and dramatically transform appearance.

Take the example of a 34-year-old unmarried teacher. Despite increasing bills and economic recession, Melissa McQueeney adamantly refuses to stop buying lipstick. As she defiantly strides to the cash register with a new lip gloss, she is quoted as declaring: "I didn't even try it on. I'm just splurging."

Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled "Raj Persaud in conversation," which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world. Follow Dr. Raj Persaud on Twitter.

A version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post.

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