On Porsches, Showy Spending, and Dating.

What does romance have to do with consumer psychology? More than you think.

One of the most fun and novel areas of consumer behaviour research comes from an intersection with evolutionary biology.

Conspicuous consumption is the idea that people spend money on luxury goods and costly items as a display of economic power. Introduced by Veblen (1899), his original observations circled around the deliberate use of charitable donations to elicit or enhance social prestige of the donor.

Conspicuous consumption is interesting because it flies in the face of traditional perspectives in economics that tend to assume that consumption behaviour is driven by bargain prices. In the case of conspicuous consumption, consumer choice is instead driven by self-presentational concerns leading to the purchase of showy goods. Think: fancy cars, yachts, watches, wines, and art.

More recently, research in conspicuous consumption has been crossed with evolutionary biology and costly purchases have been associated with mate attraction. Displays of showy consumption are seen as costly signals that can display ‘desirable’ mate qualities. The logic is that in search of an ideal mate, individuals use luxury products to signal status or other attributes, and also to observe signals other people are sending out to get an accurate assessment of potential romantic partners’ unobservable qualities.

This research has even been linked back to charitable donations. Big showy donations might seem altruistic and selfless because they are at the donor’s expense, but they can also be tools used to signal value to potential mates. The costly signal of public philanthropy might be like the peacock’s tail, the classic example of conspicuous animal displays, showing off the individual’s ability to garner scarce resources and the possession of desirable traits that could be passed on to descendants.

Beyond public donations, there is a whole world of luxury goods that might play a part in modern mate attraction. Take the example of a ridiculously expensive sports car. Its uses are low and its costs are high. Researcher Jill Sundie of The University of Texas at San Antonio and her team use the following example:

“The Porsche Carrera GT does not qualify for the Consumer Reports list of “best buys.” The vehicle has very little cargo capacity, has only two seats, gets terrible gas mileage, and is frightfully expensive to repair. Yet for the people who spend over $440,000 to buy one, these considerations are likely irrelevant… conspicuous consumption is anything but a frivolous behavior; in fact, it appears to be linked to theoretically important individual differences in reproductive life history.” (p. 664)

This perspective builds on Darwin’s (1871) sexual selection to address this seemingly paradoxical question: if natural selection favours traits that aid survival, why do some animals have traits that appear to confer no functional advantages and may even impede survival? In the case of a peacock’s beautiful but cumbersome tail, it might make the peacock more vulnerable to predators. Darwin proposed that these qualities made the animal more attractive to the opposite sex by acting as costly signals of mate value. Instead of being a signal of deliciousness to a predator, the vibrant and symmetrical, but burdensome, tail actually signals speed, strength, and immunity to potential mates.

These showy and costly qualities are found more often in males of different species. Trivers (1972) explains this with parental investment theory. Parental investment is the minimum contribution required of each parent to produce offspring in a species. The minimum investment can be asymmetrical between males and females in a species: in the case of many mammals, the male’s minimum time to reproduce is basically as long as it takes to have intercourse but a female mammals’ minimum investment is internal gestation and nursing. Overall, Trivers argues that this has caused females to be choosier about selecting partners – more observant and receptive to signals that hint at unobservable underlying mate quality. In contrast, males are more competitive in getting sexual access to the choosier females.

Conspicuous consumption is then just like the peacock’s tail. It is the costly spending of resources to signal sexual desirability to prospective mates. Griskevicius et al. (2007) found that contextual activations of mating motives led men, but not women, to want to conspicuously spend and perform public acts of heroism. To illicit mating motives, the researchers did the following: “we displayed the photographs of three attractive opposite sex individuals on the participants’ computer screen. Participants were asked to select the person whom they thought was the most desirable romantic partner, and, after making their selection, to imagine that they were preparing to go on a first date with this individual. They were to spend up to 3 min writing on the computer about their idea of the perfect first date with the person they selected.” (p. 88).

Sundie and team took the line of research further by looking at the relationship between conspicuous consumption behaviour and mating strategies. They found that showy spending behaviour differed between men who followed a low-investment short-term strategy versus high-investment long-term strategy.

Why? Turning back to evolutionary biology, Sundie suspected that like how the peahens evaluate the peacocks’ beautiful yet handicapping tails, women might use conspicuous consumption displays to evaluate men for short-term partnerships differently than for long-term partnerships. These cues are important in short-term partnerships because they provide clues about the underlying qualities that cannot be surmised in the short-term. By spending money inefficiently, these men demonstrate they can absorb the cost of resources with negligible negative impact to their survival – presumably providing clues about his underlying intelligence or skill. These traits are linked with qualities valued by women in short-term mates, including social dominance and financial riskiness. Sundie and team also argue that non-mating benefits are provided to women in these contexts, including the provision of economic benefits (i.e., expensive gifts, fancy dinners). In contrast, the narcissistic and irresponsible spending on frivolous luxuries today, rather than saving for tomorrow, is not desirable in a responsible long-term partner.

Through experimentation, Sundie and team found that when they elicited mating motives (having participants think about an ideal university dating service), it increased conspicuous consumption in flashy products in men who followed a low-investment strategy but not in men who followed a high-investment strategy. The signals were read loud and clear by women: men who purchase luxury goods are perceived as more attractive, specifically as short-term but not long-term partners, making it an effective sexual signal.

Different types of products have different sexual signals. For example, the purchase of eco-friendly products are seen as having greater warmth, competence, and good traits as a partner, but less physical appeal, and are associated as desirable with long-term partners rather than short-term partners.

What’s the Valentine’s Day take-away? Here is it:

Trying to find a short-term love for Valentine’s day? Maybe take the Porsche 911 GT2-RS rather than the BMW i8. Looking for long-term love? Ditch the gold chains and crocodile-skin pants. Even better, start some kind of a collection – research has found that the substantial costs and effort of creating a collection is related to signals of unobserved resource acquisition capacity and desirability as a long-term partner. Fossil-collectors rejoice!


Got love on the brain? Watch this TED talk.

How about math and dating? Watch my favourite TED talk here.



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