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The Defensive Message in a Designer Handbag

Two researchers offer evidence that women, consciously or not, use expensive items as a back-away signal to romantic rivals.
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Men: Have you ever puzzled over why women covet costly designer shoes and handbags, even though—to your eyes—the $200 and $2,000 models look pretty much the same?

Newly published research suggests these pricey products have a highly specific intended audience. Their role, at least in part, is to impress and intimidate potential romantic rivals.

"Women use luxury products to send signals to other women, in order to deter those other women from poaching their romantic parenter," argue University of Minnesota researchers Yajin Wang and Vladas Griskevicius. According to their study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, expensive apparel indicates that “their romantic partner is especially devoted to them,” and thus not worth the energy of attempting to woo.

In other words, that’s not simply an overpriced purse: It’s a visual signal screaming, “Hands off my guy!”

Wang and Griskevicius describe a series of experiments backing up their thesis. The first and most direct featured 69 women (with a mean age of 32) recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Each read a description of a woman who was attending a party with her date. Her outfit and accessories were labeled either “designer-brand” or “non-designer brand.” Afterwards, participants were asked how committed the man was to the woman, and how much he loves her. He was described as a “more devoted partner” to the woman in the designer outfit.

A final study, featuring a similar set of scenarios, suggests that “a woman’s luxury products can effectively dissuade other women from poaching her romantic partner,” the researchers write.

In another study, 115 women (with a mean age of 33) were asked to place themselves in one of three scenarios. Some were taking an important test. Others were at a party with their romantic partner. Still others were also at the party, except things got uncomfortable when another woman began to flirt with their man. Afterwards, they took a survey designed to assess their desire for luxury products. They were asked whether, compared to their peers, they would spend more or less money than average on a car, shoes, and jewelry.

Those who had imagined watching another woman flirt with their mate “sought to spend significantly more on conspicuous consumption products” than those in the other two categories, the researchers report. This, they add, indicates that “a mate-guarding motive triggers women’s desire for conspicuous luxury products.”

Yet another study pinpointed the use of these products. Seventy-five female undergraduates from the University of Minnesota imagined themselves in one of the aforementioned scenarios: Either the important test, or the party where they observed another woman flirting with their date. Half of the latter group were then asked to imagine finding themselves alone with the second woman shortly afterwards, and write about how they would feel. The others imagined going back to their man and interacting with him.

This time, their interest in luxury goods was measured in real-world terms. Each participant was given five one-dollar bills as a thank you for participating in the study. They were then told they could spend some or all of the money on $1 raffle tickets to win a $200 spending spree at one of eight luxury stores, including Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.

Those who imagined themselves facing the flirtatious woman spent, on average, $3.88 on the raffle tickets, compared to less than $2 for members of the other two groups. The notion of confronting the competition apparently drove the desire for luxury items.

A final study, featuring a similar set of scenarios, suggests that “a woman’s luxury products can effectively dissuade other women from poaching her romantic partner,” the researchers write.

“Other women who would consider pursuing a taken man were less willing to pursue him if his partner had a luxurious designer handbag and expensive jewelry. This effect was driven by other women’s perceptions of the man as more devoted to his partner when she had luxury products.”

“Taken together,” the researchers conclude, “women’s flaunting of luxury possessions functions as a signaling system to female rivals, sending important information to other women, and effectively altering their behavior.”

The researchers concede that luxury items also have other uses, such as signaling high status or good taste. And at this point, they can only speculate as to whether a similar psychological drive inspires single women to desire such goods.

Assuming their analysis is correct, one wonders whether this signaling system will remain viable for future generations, as women become more financially independent, and thus able to buy expensive things for themselves. Even today, expensive shoes may signal a willingness to indulge oneself, rather than the presence of an indulgent mate.

That said, Wang and Griskevicius note that “mate guarding” has been an ongoing concern since the early days of our species. This may simply be its current incarnation.

They conclude with some advice for men in relationships. They note that, according to one recent survey, the present most desired by women was a gift card to a luxury store. From the mate-guarding perspective, they write, this makes perfect sense. “Men are often clueless about which products, brands, or styles women want,” they write. “The gift card provides an elegant situation to this problem by essentially allowing women to choose their own presents, and ensure that such ‘gifts’ send the right message to other women.”

Nothing says “Back off!” as beautifully as Burberry.