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written by Kerry Cunningham
We all know the cliché of the middle-aged man who responds to a “mid-life crisis” by buying a Corvette. Other cultures and times have their own versions of the Corvette, but the principle appears to be universal: when men feel their virility and attractiveness waning, they respond by finding some way to show that they still have what it takes to be a good mate. In evolutionary terms, this is called costly signaling. Men are signaling that they are still viable mates, and costly signals are those which are hard to fake (in nature, the peacock’s tail is perhaps the best known example of a costly signal).
First, researchers in the Netherlands found that simply reminding men of mating opportunities (by showing them pictures of attractive women — for the purposes of this conversation, we’ll just consider heterosexual men and women) increased their desire for status goods. When men want to mate with attractive women, they seem to think of buying things to display their mate value.
Second, researchers in Montreal found that when men engage in conspicuous consumption — when they buy the Corvette — they actually experience a surge of testosterone. In other words, whether potential mates are more attracted to them or not, by spending money in a conspicuous way (i.e., with the intention of attracting mating opportunities), men’s ability and desire to engage in mating behaviors is increased.
The plot thickens! But then the question then is, Do women even notice or care?
In short, yes. And the conditions in which they do tell the story of how we came to be the way we are. A recent study by Belgian scientists found that when women are in the fertile stage of their menstrual cycle, they actually pay more attention and are more attracted to high status products. Women who are not in their fertile phase do not. Women who are on the pill (which disrupts the normal menstrual cycle) also do not care so much about status consumption. These results are consistent with other findings that women in their fertile phase rate more masculine men as more attractive. Women in their fertile phase are also more likely than others to cheat on their partners, but only with men who are considered more physically attractive than the guy they are in a relationship with.
So, we now know that men who are reminded of mating opportunities are motivated to signal their mate value through conspicuous consumption; we also know that when they do they become more mating-ready. Finally, however much we might think this strategy is shallow and crass, it appears to be a reasonably good one, because when women are in their fertile reproductive phase, they are actually more susceptible to this conspicuous consumption ploy.
Once again, sex — or the possibility of sex, anyway — affects our economic behavior in ways that we normally would not be aware of.