Saad, Gad and John G. Vongas (2009) The effect of conspicuous consumption on men’s testosterone levels. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 110/2: 80-92.
Introduction (longue one)
Thorstein Veblen coined the expression conspicuous consumption in 1899 to refer to goods which principal aim was to be displayed, advertise one’s wealth and impress one’s peers (p.80). In other words, it makes one’s fortune obvious by stressing one’s ability to waste.
A strikingly close concept was developed by the ornithologist Amotz Zahavi. This handicap principle explains why some animals have evolved conspicuous morphological traits and behaviours (flashy colours, loud nuptial noises) which make them easier targets for predators. These are designed to signal their carriers’ superior fitness compared to the competition. Such signals are so costly that only the individuals (usually the males) in the best conditions can afford them (e.g. in case of malnourishment the colours of a peacock’s tail will fade). In turn these characteristics are significant assets in times of courtship.
“Through lurid displays of wealth, Porsche owners signal to others that they could bear substantial financial costs [in order] to reinforce their perceived social status”.
The understanding of the rewards brought by these traits needs to take into account the Darwinian concept of sexual selection. As males (usually) compete for females, behaviours broadcasting fitness ensures reproductive benefits to individuals (i.e. more and better mates; p.81). Across human cultures, females demonstrate a clear preference for resourceful men, implying that a man’s ability to invest in their offspring is a sought-after trait by women (p.82).
“In summary, it appears that women have been selectied to evaluate men’s ability and willingness to provide economic resources to the pair bond. Not surprisingly then, high-income men have reported greater frequency of sex than their low-income counterparts, as well as, greater number of biological children.”
These bases of female choice for a mate explain man’s craving for conspicuous goods (p.83). To test this hypothesis, the authors have provided males students with either an old sedan or a new Porsche. They assume that the status-enhancement provoked by driving the sportscar will lead to a greater production of testosterone (which has been shown to increase feistiness and sexual activity). Furthermore, they assume that the perceived status-enhancement will be more noticeable if the drive takes place in a crowded urban area than on a deserted road (p.84).
Indeed, the testosterone levels at the end of the Porsche driving session were significantly higher than at the end of the drive in the sedan. However, for the sportscar, there was no difference based on the driving environment. There was nonetheless a difference based on the driving environment for the sedan. Contrary to what the the authors had expected, testosterone levels were higher at the end of the city drive, suggesting that the participant did not feel ashamed to be seen driving an old car, which might be explained by the subjects’ young age (p.85).
Another assumption of the authors was that a man faced with the conspicuous competition of another he could not match would feel like a looser and thus his testosterone level would decrease. They further assumed that this drop would be more significant if a woman was witnessing this humiliating scene (p.86). Unlike what was expected, ‘socially defeated’ men in front of a 100% masculine audience experienced no change in their endocrinal activity, while when the scene took place in front of a female, testosterone levels increased suggesting that the other man’s conspicuous display of wealth was perceived as a challenge rather than a defeat (p.88).