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What Do Your Possessions Communicate About Yourself?

Displays of luxury goods are about mating as much as money.

Key points

  • Wearing luxury brand clothing increases the perceptions of a person’s wealth and status and leads to advantages.
  • Research indicates that conspicuous consumption is closely tied to mating motives.
  • Conspicuous consumption in men is linked to short-term but not long-term mating motives; women reliably detect this.
AS Inc/Shutterstock
Source: AS Inc/Shutterstock

Costly signaling theory proposes that animals, including humans, send signals about their desirable personal characteristics and access to resources through costly biological displays, altruism, or other behaviors that would be hard to fake. One of the most common forms of costly signaling in capitalistic societies is wasteful spending on luxury goods that, by definition, are not essential for survival or even for comfort in daily life.

Conspicuous Consumption and Mating

This conspicuous consumption is driven by a desire for status and the urge to trumpet this status to onlookers. Studies have confirmed that wearing luxury brand clothing increases the perceptions of a person’s wealth and status and that these perceptions lead to all sorts of advantages. For example, individuals who wear expensive branded clothing are more likely to gain compliance to their requests, are more likely to be recommended for jobs and higher salaries, achieve better outcomes in online bargaining games, and are more successful when soliciting charitable donations from others.

A number of studies have highlighted how closely conspicuous consumption can be tied to mating motives. Women sometimes guard their mates and ward off rivals and mate poachers by displaying luxury goods as evidence of their mates’ devotion to them.

Similarly, inducing men to think about competition with other men for status leads to an increased interest in acquiring luxury goods such as expensive cars—and males are predisposed to see other men who own luxury cars more as potential rivals than as potential friends. It has even been reported that men’s testosterone levels increase after publicly driving an expensive Porsche automobile and decrease after driving a beat-up old Toyota sedan.

When It Comes to Luxury Logos, Size Matters

Psychologist Daniel Kruger has discovered that something as seemingly trivial as the size of the logo on luxury brand clothing conveys useful information about a man’s potential as a mate.

Specifically, Kruger found that men who wore a Ralph Lauren brand polo shirt with the “Big Pony” logo on the left chest were rated as being more interested in brief sexual flings than in long-term committed romantic relationships and that women found them more attractive for the former and less attractive for the latter compared to men who wore the more traditional “small pony” logo.

In one of Kruger’s studies, men explicitly reported that they would be most likely to wear the “Big Pony” shirt in situations where they would be competing with other men for social dominance or leadership positions and least likely to wear it for a job interview or when meeting their girlfriend’s parents for the first time.

Kruger’s research demonstrated that displays of luxury that are exaggerated in some way may be an effective way of advertising that a man is on the prowl for a mate.

Still, the advantages of conspicuous consumption are apparently limited. Conspicuous consumption by men primarily reflects an interest in short-term mating rather than long-term mating. This is accurately detected by females who consider conspicuous consumers more desirable as short-term (but not long-term) mates.