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Sex Appeal Part 2: What Do the Pill and the Recession Have in Common?

The sexual economics of lipstick

On Wednesday, September 12th, 2001, the stock market was closed. Trading was halted for the rest of week following the 9/11 attacks, and when the market reopened, the Dow fell by more than 684 points. Consumer confidence tumbled as Americans were plunged into a period of uncertainty and worry about what further shocks the future might hold. In the months that followed, a close observer of the retail economy made a striking observation: despite the economic slide, sales of lipstick had somehow risen. He claimed that in tough times, women were turning to inexpensive outlets to boost their mood. The man who described this “lipstick effect” was not an ivory tower academic—he was Leonard Lauder, then Chairman of the Estee Lauder Companies.1 Lauder’s observation that his company’s cosmetic products got a bounce in tough times had actually been described several times after major economic downturns beginning with the Great Depression when cosmetic sales rose 25%. And the current Great Recession is no exception. In the first half of 2008, L’Oreal’s cosmetic sales rose more than 5% while the broader economy began to tank.2

A recent study3 led by psychologist Sarah E. Hill provides compelling evidence that the lipstick effect has its roots long before lipstick was ever invented. In the last post, we explored how oral contraceptive pills may be biasing the female brain by playing with evolved mechanisms of sexual attraction. If Hill’s study is right, the Great Recession may also be tapping into our ancestral mind to re-shape female behavior in the mating game.

The researchers came at the problem from the perspective of behavioral ecology. According to “life history theory”, in the drive to pass on their genes, organisms often face a fundamental trade-off between allocating resources to their own survival or to reproducing as fast they can. And the choice is guided by what conditions are like on the ground. In harsh environments, when resources are scarce, organisms are more likely to devote their efforts to short-term reproduction. Hill and her colleagues reasoned that economic hard times provide a signal to females: men with the resources to invest in your offspring may become scarce. That in turn could drive women to enhance their own efforts to attract men who are well-endowed (financially, that is). When high-quality men are harder to find, it might pay to invest more in your own attractiveness. In other words, the “lipstick effect” might be the expression of an evolved strategy for luring men when times are tough as a way of advancing women’s reproductive success.

Yes, it sounds a little far-fetched. But consider the evidence that Hill and her colleagues accumulated.

First, they gathered 20 years of data (1992-2011) on unemployment rates in the U.S. and looked at retail spending on 5 categories of products during the same period. As unemployment went up, people spent less on furniture, electronics, and leisure/hobby products, but they spent more on products that could be used to enhance attractiveness: personal care/cosmetics products and clothing/accessories. Intriguing, but of course correlation is not necessarily causation. So the researchers then ran a series of experiments to see whether there was really something about economic worries that drives people to re-allocate resources to beauty products.

In the first experiment, they had men and women read one of two fictitious New York Times articles. One article was about how bleak the current recession was, comparing it to the Great Depression and noting that there was no end in sight. The other was a “control” article about architecture. The subjects were then asked how much they desired a range of consumer products which included items designed to enhance physical attractiveness (like lipstick and form fitting jeans) as well as neutral products like a stapler or headphones. Women who had been primed with the recession article were significantly more likely to choose the attractiveness-enhancing items compared to those who read the neutral article and significantly more likely to desire the attractiveness items compared to the neutral ones.

In another experiment, the researchers found that, after being primed with information about economic bad news, women put more importance on financial resources in choosing a potential mate. And that increased desire for mates with resources seemed drive the “lipstick effect”. What’s more, the lipstick effect wasn’t simply a matter of women preferring cheaper products when times are tight: women in the “recession” condition didn’t report more desire for inexpensive goods that weren’t beauty-enhancing.

The final experiment was perhaps the most telling. Hill and her colleagues presented female subjects with ads for two equally desirable versions of three products: jeans, high-heeled boots, and perfume. Using Photoshop, they added one of two kinds of slogans to the ads. One set of slogans emphasized the product’s connection to attracting mates (e.g. “Be desired”) while the other set was unrelated to enhancing desirability to mates (e.g. “Not your mother’s black boots”). Only women exposed to “recession cues” reported greater desire for the products with slogans about attracting mates. So the same beauty products became more desirable when women were primed to worry about the economic recession and women wanted them more when the products were advertised as enhancing sexual attractiveness.

So what to make of all this? The researchers suggest that women have an evolved mental mechanism that shifts their efforts to attracting males with resources when such environmental conditions are looking bad. Their data are consistent with that idea, but there are also some important limitations. Most importantly, tbe study subjects were university students--a group that has been called “WEIRD”—that is, from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic backgrounds.4 We have to be cautious about drawing broad conclusions about human nature based these kind of samples. Nevertheless, this study and the hormone studies described in my last post suggest that forces in our internal and external environment can adjust the lens through which we look at potential mates.

1.Schaefer K. Hard Times, but Your Lips Look Great. New York Times 2008 May 1, 2008.

2.Elliott L. Into the red: 'lipstick effect' reveals the true face of the recession. The Guardian 2008 December 22, 2008.

3.Hill SE, Rodeheffer CD, Griskevicius V, Durante K, White AE. Boosting beauty in an economic decline: Mating, spending, and the lipstick effect. Journal of personality and social psychology 2012;103:275-91.

4.Henrich J, Heine SJ, Norenzayan A. The weirdest people in the world? Behav Brain Sci 2010;33:61-83; discussion -135.

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