When I first graduated and was setting off to make my way in the world, someone once gave me this piece of advice; well more a way of scoring how you’re doing in life. To put it into context, it was in the late 1980’s in the middle of the Thatcher Government, a year or so after the birth of the YUPPIE. You remember them, ‘the young upwardly-mobile professional’ – God help us all.
Anyway the advice on assessing my life was simple. The measurements of where I was up to at any given time were beautifully parsimonious; and it also seemed to be an approach that everyone in the UK was religiously following.
It was simplicity itself: “He who dies with the most toys wins!”
As a newly graduated 20 something, it sent a shudder through me. Not from any moral perspective, but simply because I was so far behind all of my friends who had headed into Financial Services instead of higher education. Yet here he was in front of me, drinking from a bottle of champagne that cost more than I got as a grant. And he was only two years older than me. If he’d have smiled for a second longer, we would have been totting his toys total up there and then!
So what drives people to behave like this and was it purely an invention of Thatcher’s entrepreneurial, capitalist Britain? The simple answer is no. But we’re going to have to flesh it out a little more than that. So light up your Cuban Havana, pour yourself a large glass of something eye-wateringly expensive and read on.
What we’re talking about here is Conspicuous Consumption. And it’s been around for a VERY long time. And it has a very useful evolutionary purpose, which means it won’t be disappearing anytime soon.
Coined as a term back in 1899 by Thorstein Veblen, from an evolutionary psychology perspective it all started when Charles Darwin woke up screaming after a dream about a Peacock’s tail feather. In a letter to ASA Gray in April of 1860, Darwin wrote:
“I remember well the time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, and now small trifling particulars of structure often make me feel uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”
Darwin was, at the time, uncomfortable with the investment of energy made by the male Peacock into an impractical and elaborate tail. It appeared to have no significant reason for adaptation in terms of survival. In fact, it could even be considered to be a handicap, as a brightly coloured and heavy tail makes hiding and escaping from predators more than a little difficult. So, as you can imagine, this posed a big problem in terms of the Origin of Species.
In 1871, after lots of deliberation and sleepless nights, Darwin published The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.
It was here that he introduced the notion of sexual selection and sexual dimorphism. He put forward a theory that sexual dimorphism (physical differences between the sexes) was greater in polygamous species than in monogamous. He suggested that, in a polygamous species, secondary sexual characters will naturally become more developed in order for males to attract and have greater access to mating females.
This sexual dimorphism would manifest itself in the difference in size between males and females, for those species that use combat to attract a female mate. And through differences in display by those who woo through colourful displays such as a peacock and his tail. To test and prove his theory, he even went onto to cut the eyes out of peacock’s tails as well as shortening or artificially extending tail length.
This apparent biological drawback of some aspects of sexual dimorphism was addressed by evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi (1975) when he proposed the Handicap Principle. At first viewed with skepticism, it has become widely accepted as a Darwinian phenomenon. Zahavi suggested that as a unique trait serves as a signal of ‘fitness’ then it should be something that is difficult to copy, imitate or fake. Thus putting ‘cheaters’ in a position where it is extremely difficult to copy, as displaying the signal (remember the tail) is so costly to do and so disadvantageous that only the truly fit could ever display it. This barrier to the possession of the trait means that any form of elaborate ornamentation must therefore be regarded as an honest signal of fitness.
It’s important to point out that that some species are characterisied by manifestations of heavy male investment in offspring and a far more equal division of labour between sexual partners in the raising of the young. In their study of the great skua, Catry & Furness (1997), found that the male invests heavily after breeding by foraging for food for his mate and offspring. Sticking with one partner and putting his energy into the long term relationship that helps improve the survival chances for his offspring.
It may come as no surprise to find out that the common view is that humans sit somewhere in the middle of polygamy and monogamy – depending on all sorts of factors such as life stage, age, chances of being caught and how much Lynx has been sprayed about the room.
So with that in mind, let’s hold a mirror up to ourselves shall we?
Geoffrey Miller 1999 used the idea of Veblen goods, such as ostentatious forms of conspicuous consumption (luxury cars etc) was an obvious manifestation of the handicap principle – with consumption, in the form of wealth and status, being used as an indicator of fitness to potential mates.
Look back at the art of the past few centuries and you will see obesity being celebrated as a form of fitness (in terms of the handicap principle). As, in order to become obese, it was an indicator of ones ability to produce, or afford plenty of food.
But like all dances, it takes two to Tango. The whole notion of sexual dimorphism and the handicap principle (and it’s link to conspicuous consumption) just would exist if there wasn’t a potential sexual mate not only on the receiving end of these ‘fitness’ indicators – but also applauding loudly throughout the millions of years that their species have evolved.
There’s a study by Sundie, et al (2011) with a very intriguing title: Peacocks, Porsches, and Thorstein Veblen: Conspicuous consumption as a sexual signaling system. Conducted with nearly 1,000 test subjects the research suggests that Veblen conspicuous products, such as Porsches, can serve the same function for some men (or women) that the handicapping peacock’s feathers do.
Just as peacocks display and flaunt their tails before potential mates, likewise some men may flaunt flashy products to charm potential dates.
It’s worth pointing out that not all men favored this strategy. It’s also probably worth noting that it was just those men who were interested in short-term sexual relationships with women who opted for this strategy.
Sundie concluded that “The studies show that some men are like peacocks”.
With co-author Vladas Griskevicius, adding “They’re the ones driving the bright coloured sports car,”
They also suggested that women found a man who chose to purchase a flashy luxury product (such as a Porsche) more desirable than the same man who purchased a non-luxury item (such as a Honda Civic).
But before we all run out and buy a Porsche – although women found the flashy guys more desirable for a date, the man with the Porsche was not preferred as a marriage partner. Women inferred from a man’s flashy spending that he was interested in uncommitted sex.
Co-author Daniel Beal explains “When women considered him for a long-term relationship, owning the sports car held no advantage relative to owning an economy car. People may feel that owning flashy things makes them more attractive as a relationship partner, but in truth, many men might be sending women the wrong message.”
Sundie did point out that conspicuous spending was also prevalent in women “Obviously, women also spend plenty of money on expensive things, but the anticipation of romance doesn’t trigger flashy spending as it does with some men”.
Although I have argued that conspicuous consumption has its routes in mate selection from an evolutionary psychological perspective, it also worth a closing mention of how it plays a part in our quest for self actualization. O’Cass and Frost (2002) suggest that this signaling of self image through conspicuous consumption can actually be seen as a higher level need (as suggested by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).
The modern consumer focused world, no doubt influenced by brands and their advertising, also plays a significant role in our ostentatious displays of consumption as a signal of status. Chao and Schor (1998). There study was an exploration of certain subgroups propensity to engage in conspicuous signaling via the purchase of cosmetics.
They found that race, education, income and urban/rural distinction were relevant moderators. With higher educated, wealthier, white women, living in urban areas having a greater propensity for status consumption.
Whatever we feel about conspicuous consumption, from mate attraction and ‘fitness’, through to heavily made up ladies been driven around in porches; it’s been with us from the dawn of time and doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
I only hope that we all get the opportunity to make our own call on how we would personally act, given the opportunity to have that kind of spending power. Remember though, money won’t make you happy. But it’s far more comfortable crying in a Bentley than it is on the back of a bus.