When women purchase Louis Vuitton handbags, Jimmy Choo shoes, Prada sunglasses and other luxury items, are they subconsciously telling other women that their spouse or boyfriend is especially devoted to them and, therefore, off limits to anyone else?
And does the displaying of those products actually work in deterring the other women from attempting to “poach” their men?
Apparently, the answer is yes to both questions — at least, according to the findings from a provocative study published last week by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
“Whereas men use conspicuous products to attract mates, women use conspicuous products to deter female rivals,” conclude the study’s co-authors, Valadas Griskevicius, an associate professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management, and PhD student Yajin Wang.
Of course, previous studies have found other reasons women purchase luxury products: to boost their self-esteem, for example, or to express their identity. But, as the findings of this new study suggest, such products may also play an important “signaling” role in relationships.
“In past research we have found that when men are showing off these luxury products, the audience is often other women,” said Griskevicius in a phone interview with MinnPost. “When men have a flashy car, they want women to see this flashy car and to realize how expensive it is. But for women, they’re showing off these expensive products to other women.”
The current study is actually a series of five separate experiments involving 649 women of different ages and relationship statuses. Some of the experiments were conducted online with women recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. Others involved University of Minnesota students.
In one experiment, participants were given brief descriptions of a woman at a party with her date and then asked questions about how devoted they thought the woman’s partner was to the relationship. When the woman was described as wearing designer clothes and accessories, the participants were significantly more likely to perceive her as having a committed partner.
In another experiment, Griskevicius and Wang aroused jealousy in some participants by asking them to imagine another woman flirting with their own partner. When the participants were subsequently asked to perform a seemingly unrelated task of drawing a luxury brand logo on a picture of a handbag, the participants who had been made to feel jealous drew logos that were, on average, twice the size as those drawn by other participants.
In a third experiment, some participants were once again made to feel jealous through an imaged scenario. Afterwards, all participants were given $5 and told they could spend as much of it as they wanted to purchase $1 raffle tickets to win a $200 spending spree to eight luxury-brand stores, such as Nordstrom, Tiffany and Coach. Those who had been made to feel jealous spent an average of 32 percent more than the other participants on the raffle tickets.
The research also demonstrated that women who feel their relationship is under threat are more likely to purchase luxury products that can be conspicuously displayed in public rather than ones that are expensive but not as noticeable to others.
In addition, Griskevicius and Wang found that women were less likely to say they would pursue a man if he attended a party with a woman wearing luxury items — but only when they were told that the man had purchased the items for the woman (as opposed to the woman buying the items herself).
Used as a shield
What the findings from all these experiments suggest, said Griskevicius, is that “if a woman feels threatened in her relationship — if some other woman is eying her romantic partner — she can flash a handbag or other product like a shield to say, ‘Hey, my romantic partner is really committed to me, so back off.’”
None of this is done consciously, however.
“Most women — and most guys, in fact — are not aware that any of this is going on,” explained Griskevicius. “A lot of it is happening at a subconscious level.”
And it doesn’t seem to matter if a woman is currently in a relationship or not, for single women also engage in the conspicuous consumption and display of luxury goods, according to the study’s findings.
“A single woman sporting luxurious possessions might get better access to desirable mates,” explain Griskevicius and Wang in their study. “In this sense, luxury goods for single women might function to deter rivals and pre-guard a potential mate, whereby instead of signaling ‘back off my current man,’ lavish possessions might signal to other women ‘back off my future man.’ Of course, future research is needed to test this possibility.”
Gift cards: ‘an elegant solution’?
In the conclusion to their study, Griskevicius and Wang cite the findings from a recent U.S. survey in which two-thirds of the female respondents (from the top 10 percent of the nation’s wage earners) said the gift they preferred to all others was a gift card to a luxury store.
“Considering that women’s luxury products often serve as signals to other women, gift cards are likely to be a particularly useful present for women in relationships,” the U of M researchers write. “Although we suspect that women would be more than happy to receive actual luxury products (rather than gift cards) from their partners, men are often clueless about which products, brands, or styles women want. The gift card provides an elegant solution to this problem by essentially allowing women to choose their own presents and ensure that such ‘gifts’ send the right message to other women.”
Of course, the study’s results reflect the average responses of the participants. Not all women are interested in purchasing and exhibiting designer goods.
“For women in relationships who are not displaying these fancy handbags and showing off, it suggests that they are more secure in their relationship, that they feel less threatened,” said Griskevicius.
Now there’s something to flaunt.