Thursday, October 8, 2015
What do you think of when I say “luxury consumption”? Probably something that requires a Robin Leach voice over, right? Now what if I ask you why these luxuries are so valued? Is it because they are of excellent quality? Aesthetically appealing? Highly exclusive? Next, consider the audience for the luxury – who is admiring who? And what does that luxury symbolize? Status? Wealth? Success?
A recent paper in Evolutionary Psychology takes a look at these questions and has one of the best titles ever. To date, much of the research on luxury consumption has focused on why men spend so much money on brands that “offer no additional utilitarian benefits compared to their cheaper counterparts.” I found that rather odd as I tend to think of women when I think of luxury shopping. Perhaps because I am one. For example, did you know that an Hermès Birkin bag can go for over $200,000? Yes, that is an extreme example, but think about how many women you see every day that carry Coach bags, wear designer brand clothes, and/or own at least one pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. Put that way, perhaps it is unsurprising to know that women spend huge sums of money on “conspicuous luxuries,” an average of $100 billion each year. This study looked at the psychology of women in relation to symbolism of these luxuries by breaking it down into two experiments.
Experiment 1 – Does competition trigger women’s luxury consumption and preferences?
A group of 195 women, under the age of 50 and of various incomes and education levels, completed an online survey. A 2 (context) by 2 (luxuries) by 2 (product type) factorial design used to test fictional scenarios.
In the context of competition:
Competitive Scenario: Women were asked to rate four pictures of attractive women. Then they were asked to read a scenario with those pictures in mind. For example:
Imagine that you are at a class reunion and you meet an attractive, smart, funny, intelligent man with an engaging personality. However, the woman in the picture also shows an interest in this man and she has struck up a conversation with him while you were gone to get a drink.
Noncompetitive Scenario: Women were asked to rate four pictures of landscapes for attractiveness. Then they read a scenario such as:
Imagine that you are walking through the most beautiful landscape and you enjoy the environment, weather and views.
The luxuries and types:
Women were asked to read a description of a luxury product that enhances physical attractiveness (like a dress) or a neutral product that does not (like a smartphone). Then the luxuriousness of the product was manipulated by using various adjectives. For example:
“Imagine you see a little black dress in a store. It is a very expensive but beautiful dress. The dress is a unique piece of an exclusive clothing line. It has an excellent quality and is only available in a luxurious clothing store. When wearing this dress you will feel luxurious.”
When asked to read the scenario, they were asked to imagine the items in a fashion store and rate how much they liked the item.
They found that women in the competitive context felt more competitive, and women in the luxury condition found products to be more luxurious. Okay, yeah, I would pretty much expect that. But more specifically, they found interaction: women who perceived the luxury smartphone as more luxurious and expensive in the competitive context. It was context that ended up playing the dominant role in female-female competition, particularly with luxury items that enhance physical attractiveness (like the dress). I definitely believe that one.
Experiment 2 – What do luxury goods signal to rival females?
An online survey was also used for this experiment. A 9 (product) by 2 (product type) between-subjects design was used. First, women read a scenario where a woman leaves for a trip and upon arrival realizes she forgot a product. So she goes on a shopping trip and purchases Product X for Price Y. In the luxury condition a dress or watch would be purchased for 300 Euro (did I mention this was conducted in Belgium?). In the non-luxury condition, an alarm clock or night cream would be purchased for 15 Euro. Next, respondents were asked to assess the woman on various traits (attractive, sexy, loyal, smart, mature, ambitious, wealthy, etc.) and mate value (agreeableness, sexual willingness, ambition, status, etc.). They were also asked if they would consider this woman to be a friend, if she spent a lot of money on that product, and if they would spend similar amounts of money.
The respondents in the luxury condition agreed that the woman spent a lot of money on the product, and that they would spend less money on it. This luxury-loving woman was also perceived to be more attractive, sexier, flirtier, youthful, ambitious, and richer but less loyal, mature, and smart. She was also less likely to be a potential friend. However, there no differences between the mate value perceptions and the degree to which the woman was considered to be a rival. There were also some interaction terms here. For example, the woman was perceived to be more youthful in the luxury condition when she purchased the attractiveness enhancing product.
So what do we take away from all of this? Perhaps we just like the self-promotion. Or maybe we just feel more attractive wearing a luxury dress. Yeah, sure, maybe. But these results really show that we like to look luxurious to up our attractiveness to beat another woman. Frankly, ladies, we sound like judgmental bitches.
Hudders, L., De Backer, C., Fisher, M., & Vyncke, P. (2014). The Rival Wears Prada: Luxury Consumption as a Female Competition Strategy Evolutionary Psychology, 12 (3) DOI: 10.1177/147470491401200306