What Signals What?

The latest Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says we use visible luxuries and helpfulness in part as ways to attract mates:

Conspicuous displays of consumption and benevolence might serve as "costly signals" of desirable mate qualities. If so, they should vary strategically with manipulations of mating-related motives. The authors examined this possibility in 4 experiments. Inducing mating goals in men increased their willingness to spend on conspicuous luxuries but not on basic necessities. In women, mating goals boosted public-but not private–helping. Although mating motivation did not generally inspire helping in men, it did induce more helpfulness in contexts in which they could display heroism or dominance. Conversely, although mating motivation did not lead women to conspicuously consume, it did lead women to spend more publicly on helpful causes. Overall, romantic motives seem to produce highly strategic and sex-specific self-presentations best understood within a costly signaling framework.

This suggests that female luxury consumption, and non-heroic non-dominant male helping, are not done to impress potential mates.  Of course they could still be costly signals, but to other audiences. 

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  • Nathan Iver O’Sullivan

    Robin, can you provide a non-gated link to the paper you’re referencing? I’m skeptical that the authors were able to control for everything other than “mating motivation.”

  • Nathan, follow the second link.

  • Hapily Anonymous

    The latest post in futurepundit.com blog strikes me as a possible example of this:


    FuturePundit speculates that people (women?) may prefer to drive prius’ over investing in home insulation because it may allow them to perform their environmentalism more publicly.

  • On an aside- I love it when Psychologists show something in humans that has been demonstrated numerous times in non-human animals by Behavioral Ecologists- then think they have discovered something really novel…

    No Surprises here- women choose mates based on resources, hence the prius, loud stereo, ect. Men, on the other hand choose on the basis is fecundity- hence mini-skirts and open mid-rifts…

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Matt, I don’t know if “psychologists” are claiming to have discovered something novel and distinct from discoveries of behavioral ecologists (although there is value in discovering a phenomenon exists specifically in the human subspecies) but in this particular case, I thought it was interesting that according to the study in the OP women are performing something to me other than fecundity, they’re performing “helpfulness” -which may indicate that men choose their mates not just on fecundity but also on likelihood to either nuture offspring or to add generally to the welfare of the social group.

  • I love it when psychologists show something that’s already been known and demonstrated for how long now? I would love to ask the men in the sidebar, how they chose their mates. What did you notice first? Her fecundity, helpfulness, or the cost of her shoes? And in what order?

    It would be interesting to do a study on how women use conspicuous consumption to relate to each other. Working in the fashion field for many years, I found that women buy luxury goods, especially accessories, for each other, not men. We send signals to each other in the mating game, that men don’t even notice, as they’re concerned with fecundity. In other words, women use such goods to evoke insecurity in other women, causing them to stay away from the men they are trying to attract. Whether this is conscious or not, is beside the point, as the same luxury makes you feel good (and powerful to other women), whether you get the man or not.

  • Support Open Source: Seduce A Woman Today

    I love reading Robin Hanson’s blog Overcoming Bias. Today, a post on conspicuous consumption and public causes caught my eye. It reminded me of Tor Norretranders’s keynote at EuroOSCON last year, and not just because Robin is keynoting this year….