She’s not looking at you: What really inspires a woman to go shopping

Recently, I have discussed research demonstrating that when men engage in conspicuous consumption, such as buying an expensive sports car, they are often doing so in order to signal to potential mates that they are good mate bait. Not only that, when men engage in such acts of conspicuous consumption, they experience a surge of testosterone, which prepares them for the (hoped for) liaison by increasing sexual desire, confidence and aggression.

A team of rivals?

The crucial piece of the puzzle, of course, is whether or not potential mates actually find this “costly signal” of the man’s status attractive. Other research we have reviewed suggests that it just might. When women are ovulating (i.e., when they are able to conceive), they are more susceptible to status signals. Not only that, but when women are fertile, they are also given to conspicuous displays of their own. For women, the conspicuous display is more personal than for men, however. Women tend to spend more money on clothing and to wear more revealing, sexier clothing when they are ovulating. From an evolutionary perspective, that makes sense. Sexying things up and attracting the best mates when you are most likely to become pregnant probably served women well over the course of our history.

Both sexes are playing the mating game, but for men the display is about social status, while for women it’s about fertility.

Given the economic implications of all of this mating-related consumption, a team of researchers  (Kristina Durante, Vladas Griskevicius, Sarah Hill, Carin Perilloux, and Norman Li) wondered how the economy might affect women’s spending. They found their first hint in some surprising historical economic data. During the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the country was in economic ruin, the ladies’ cosmetics industry boomed. This could have been for any number of reasons. However, a significant body of prior research has also shown that when women perceive competition for mating opportunities (either lots of other women or a shortage of desirable men), they tend to spend more money on appearance-enhancing items — fashion, cosmetics and the like. Putting the two ideas together, a team of American researchers wondered if economic down-times might signal to (ovulating) women that the market for desirable (that is to say, high status) males was shrinking, which would in turn influence them to increase their spending on appearance-related items.

Putting it all together, the researchers devised a study in which both ovulating and non-ovulating women were shown a set of photographs. The photographs women were shown contained either attractive women, attractive men, or less attractive women or less attractive men. The women in the experiment were then asked to make choices on a shopping website set up for the purposes of the study. Items in the experimental store had been rated according to their sexiness.

What researchers found was that only when ovulating women were “primed” with attractive other women did they choose significantly sexier items from the store. Non-ovulating women’s choices weren’t affected by the photos of the attractive women, and ovulating women’s choices weren’t affected by pictures of men, attractive or not.

But, perhaps it wasn’t that women in the study perceived the women in the photographs as competition. It is possible that priming women with attractive other women simply inspired them to be their sexy best. If that were the case, then pictures of attractive women wherever they might be should have the same effect. To test this, the researchers ran an experiment just like the first one, but this time they added information about the women in the pictures. All photos were purportedly of other college students, but some were identified as students of the same university, while the rest were said to be from a more distant school. Consistent with the women-as-competitors hypothesis, only when ovulating women saw local attractive women did they choose sexier stuff from the store. More distant attractive women did not have an effect on women’s choices.

So, connecting all the dots, the researchers concluded that when women perceive there to be competition for mating opportunities, they sexy up their wardrobe. Something as seemingly unrelated as the state of the economy may lead women to perceive that the pool of available, attractive men is smaller, and thus, the competition for those mates stronger. Just when many can least afford it, they may feel the urge to splurge in order to sexy up their wardrobe to compete for that smaller pool of high status men.

The moral of this story for women, then, is that if you are ovulating and feel a sudden urge to splurge on sexy clothes or high-end cosmetics, consider waiting until the feeling (and that time of the month) passes.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habitshappiness, and values.  To learn about your spending habits, what influences your buying behavior, and how you define the good life, first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then take our Materialistic Values Scale, our Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale, and our Beliefs about Well-being. We think you may learn a lot about what causes you to part with your hard-earned money.

The article referenced above is called, “Ovulation, female competition, and product choice: Hormonal influences on consumer behavior,” and appeared in the April, 2011 edition of The Journal of Consumer Research, 37(6), 921–934.

This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham. Follow @kerryfc


About Kerry

Kerry has an M.S. in Industrial-Organizational psychology and something just short of 20 years experience as a manager and executive in b2b direct marketing. Currently, Kerry works with organizations to improve processes and practices in the area of people management. In addition, Kerry has a deep and abiding passion for all things evolution, but particularly evolutionary perspectives on organizational and economic behavior. When not geeking out with research literature and data, Kerry is generally playing tennis and/ or enjoying a restorative cocktail.
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