In a new paper with the intriguing title “Peacocks, Porsches, and Thorstein Veblen,” researchers asked women to rate whether they would be more interested in a short-term relationship with a man who had recently bought a Porsche Boxster or a man with all the same characteristics (same salary, same job, same hobbies) but who had recently purchased a Honda Civic.
Women went with the Porsche guy. But when asked about long-term relationships, they showed no preference for the Porsche guy over the Honda guy (just to be clear: they didn’t prefer the Honda guy as a long-term mate. Car choice appeared to make no difference).
Here’s what this has to do with peacocks:
If peahens did not find the peacock’s tail attractive, then the tail would not and could not have been selected for as a mating display–those peacocks who invested the somatic energy into growing and manipulating the tail would have paid high costs for the tail without gleaning reproductive benefits. Similarly, if women did not find men who display flashy and expensive goods to be more attractive as short-term mates, conspicuous consumption would be ineffective as a sexual signal. Those men who frittered away their resources on conspicuous display would have wasted resources that could have gone to necessities with no offsetting reproductive advantage.
I would quibble with the idea that purchasing a Porsche Boxster is a waste of resources unless it serves to attract short-term romantic partners. Because, come on, that Porsche Boxter is going to be way more fun to drive than a Honda Civic, regardless of how many heads it turns.
Also, maybe the researchers should have asked whether men who drive, say, a Mini Cooper would be attractive potential dates. It’s a sporty car like the Boxster but closer in price to the Civic. That’s the guy you want to marry, right?
(The paper — which you can read in its entirety here — was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The authors are Vladas Griskevicius, Andrew W. Delton, Theresa E. Robertson, and Joshua M. Tybur.)