Sales figures from one of the world’s largest cosmetics companies, L’Oreal, revealed that during 2008, a year when the rest of the economy suffered record declines in sales, the cosmetics leviathan experienced sales growth of 5.3%.
Now a series of psychology experiments have confirmed for the first time that while tougher economic times decrease desire for most items, they also reliably increase women’s yearning for products that boost their attractiveness.
Psychologists contend that this ‘lipstick effect’ is operating largely below conscious awareness of men and women, and therefore, requires precise experiments to reveal them. The results suggest this phenomenon is driven by women’s desire to attract mates with resources.
The authors of the study, Sarah Hill, Christopher Rodeheffer, Vladas Griskevicius, Kristina Durante and Andrew Edward White, argue that over evolutionary history, our human ancestors regularly went through cycles of abundance and famine.
Mate-Seeking During Tough Times
This fact has genetically disposed people toward prioritizing mate-seeking when times get tough, as passing on our genes becomes a greater priority in harsher environments.
For example, wars are known for moments of most intense romance.
Women’s reproductive success through history, according to evolutionary theory, rests on their ability to secure a partner able to invest resources in themselves and their offspring. An economic recession may signal that financially stable men are becoming scarcer, so women should, according to evolutionary theory, compete more ferociously for richer men during financially tougher times.
The study, entitled “Boosting Beauty in an Economic Decline: Mating, Spending, and the Lipstick Effect,” examined monthly fluctuations in U.S. unemployment over the last 20 years and found when unemployment increased, people allocated smaller portions of their monthly spending budgets on electronics or leisure/hobby products.
Yet relative spending on personal care/cosmetics products went up.
But was this men or women who were buying cosmetics or personal care products? In another part of this study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology when men read a news article about a recent economic recession, they developed less desire to purchase consumer products in general.
When women read the same magazine article on a recession, in comparison with reading an article on modern architecture, unlike men, their desire to purchase products that could enhance appearance, including lipstick, increased.
In another part of the series of experiments, undergraduate unmarried women were prompted to reflect about economic recessions by viewing a slideshow entitled, “The New Economics of the 21st Century: A Harsh and Unpredictable World.”
This presentation portrayed the current state of the US economy, including unemployment lines, home foreclosure signs and empty office buildings. In the comparison condition of the experiment, participants viewed a slideshow titled, “Making the Grade: No Longer a Walk in the Park.” This slideshow represented students working to meet stringent academic requirements imposed by college administrators.
As predicted, the recession slideshow led women to report much more wanting members of the opposite sex to perceive them as pretty, that it is important to look good, and to report caring much more about how attractive they look.
So, economic recession reminders mean women become more concerned with looking physically attractive to men.
Women viewing the economic recession slides also placed a significantly greater emphasis on a potential relationship partner’s access to financial resources.
But does the ‘lipstick effect’ reflect women in recessions being drawn to cheap pleasures, such as lipstick, rather than expensive indulgences? If women believe that an expensive luxury product will make them more desirable to men, recessions should still increase women’s desire for that product (according to evolutionary theory).