What Motivates Conspicuous Consumption?
If you’ve ever wondered what exactly people are looking to accomplish by flaunting their wealth with fancy cars and expensive clothes, you’re not alone. In fact, several psychology researchers have asked this same question – and come up with at least a few answers.
Most recently, an international group of researchers published a study looking at whether competition and testosterone levels influence conspicuous consumption. In their paper, the researchers defined conspicuous consumption as “the phenomenon where individuals purchase goods for signaling social status, rather than for its inherent functional value.”
The study, which involved 166 male participants, found that winning a competition made people more strongly prefer higher-status products. This was true whether the products in question were cars or T-shirts.
Generally, the study found that winning a competition made people behave in a more dominant manner, but that this change didn’t have to do with changes in testosterone levels. This led the researchers to conjecture that one possible cause underlying the conspicuous consumption and increased dominance after winning a competition could be an “increased feeling of entitlement.”
A 2011 study looked at conspicuous consumption through the lens of sex. The paper, titled Peacocks Porsches, and Thorstein Veblen: conspicuous consumption as a sexual signaling system, showed that men tend to engage in conspicuous consumption when they’re more interested in “short-term” rather than “long-term” mating goals. Along the same lines, women tend to perceive men who engage in conspicuous consumption as more focused on short-term mating.
According to the authors of the paper, “these findings suggest that flaunting status-linked goods to potential mates is not simply about displaying economic resources. Instead, conspicuous consumption appears to be part of a more precise signaling system focused on short-term mating.”
Of course, it’s not just men who use conspicuous consumption to send sexual signals. A 2017 study found that women use conspicuous consumption in different ways depending on whether they’re in situations where they have power. Overall, it appears that when women are primarily focused on keeping a mate they already have, they tend to engage in conspicuous consumption more often when they have more power. By contrast, when they’re focused on attracting a new mate, they seem to engage in more conspicuous consumption when they have less power.
Altogether, these studies indicate that conspicuous consumption is a complex social behavior used by both men and women. Motives for conspicuous consumption can range from feelings of dominance to wanting to signal a particular sexual goal. And no doubt there are still other reasons for conspicuous consumption that psychologists will uncover in the future.
Image: Flickr/Sarah Mejia