The Lipstick Effect: How Boom or Bust Affects Beauty

To this end, the psychologists reminded women about the recession and measured their interest in purchasing luxury ‘attractiveness enhancement’ products (e.g., designer jeans) and two classes of inexpensive control products: low-cost indulgences that don’t enhance attractiveness (e.g., coffee) and discount brand versions of the attractiveness-enhancement products (e.g., jeans from WalMart).

The findings of the experiment, conducted by psychologists from Texas Christian University, University of Minnesota, University of Texas at San Antonio and Arizona State University, are that the ‘lipstick effect’ is about seeking products that are more effective at enhancing attractiveness, even if such products cost more.

Financial Desperation?

Another theory is the ‘lipstick effect’ simply reflects greater financial desperation in a recession. Because resources, historically at least, tend to be controlled by men, the psychologists conducting these experiments reasoned, economic recessions should prompt women to attract wealthy mates specifically as a means to financial support.

The psychologists found from their experiments that the ‘lipstick effect’ is not driven specifically by impoverished women lacking access to resources of their own; it applied powerfully to all women no matter the status of their own financial predicament.

In other words, women who were better off were still vulnerable to the ‘lipstick effect.’ This conclusion might suggest this extraordinary effect is operating below conscious awareness and is genetically hard wired into brains, because of evolutionary history.

This belief fits with the theory that evolution has wired into our genes and brains the reflexive tendency to prioritize mating during tougher times, as there may not be much time left to accomplish this goal. Greater ‘goal immediacy’ of mating combined with diminished access to ‘high-quality’ (ie richer) mates, combines to prompt much fiercer mate attraction efforts in women during recessionary times.

The psychologists speculated that if economic recessions increase the premium women place on a man’s access to resources, men may become more competitive to garner these resources.

For instance, a harsh economic climate might lead better off men, particularly those seeking romantic partners, to flaunt their wealth more conspicuously to attract mates at this time.

Another possibility is recessionary conditions may lead men who are unable to maintain steady employment, to be more likely to resort to lying, cheatin, or stealing as a means of resource acquisition.

The authors also speculate that recessions could mean women’s willingness to take attractiveness-enhancement risks (e.g., extreme dieting, tanning or cosmetic surgery) also goes up unhelpfully. It might even promote greater hostility towards other women.

This research suggests some hitherto unexpected impacts of recessions on women. They may have a negative impact on women’s health and the quality and durability of their female friendships.

Women often cheer themselves up during tough times by ‘pampering’ with a treat and one of the cheapest ways remains buying lipstick. Applying it, smiling at the mirror, sends women away into a harsher world with a spring in their step.

Natural Instinct

So the ‘lipstick effect’ could be no more than just women’s natural instinct to counteract the depressing effect of the recession.

But even if the ‘lipstick effect’ is not about women needing to find a rich man during tougher times, given the pressure on the household purse, when families struggle to cope with necessary spending on food and rent, many women may conceal the fact that they are also buying products as frivolous as cosmetics – hiding the truth even from themselves.

Although the ‘lipstick effect’ theoretically relates to all cosmetics, or anything that enhances female attractiveness, lipstick itself might be particularly ‘primal,’ unique in its ability to immediately and dramatically transform appearance.

Take the example of a 34-year-old unmarried teacher. Despite increasing bills and economic recession, Melissa McQueeney adamantly refuses to stop buying lipstick. As she defiantly strides to the cash register with a new lip gloss, she is quoted as declaring: “I didn’t even try it on. I’m just splurging.”

Lipstick photo available from Shutterstock

The Lipstick Effect: How Boom or Bust Affects Beauty


APA Reference
Raj, B. (2015). The Lipstick Effect: How Boom or Bust Affects Beauty. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 17, 2019, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 27 Nov 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Nov 2015
Published on All rights reserved.