Credit: Max Pixel.

Studies suggest that women generally prefer physical qualities when they have a fling in mind, while a man’s wealth is a more desirable quality when considering a long-term relationship. But how a man signals his wealth can also influence the framing of the relationship. According to new research, women can see through the bling and will generally consider a man who’s flaunting his wealth — by buying a flashy car, for instance — as a less suitable life partner than men with more practical considerations.

Male peacocking

Peacocks were one of Charles Darwin‘s long-standing dilemmas. They gave him headaches when devising the theory of evolution by natural selection. The peacock’s long tails and elaborate plumage did not confer any survival advantage — actually, the flashy plumage made them stand out, making them more vulnerable to predators. Darwin realized, however, that these features made the peacock’s more attractive to potential mates, conferring a reproductive advantage. He concluded that males who succeed in reproductive competitions will have more offspring and, thus, their traits will be selected for, even if such traits may lead to detrimental consequences in terms of survivability.

Later, psychologists found a similar puzzle when describing individuals who spent disproportionate amounts of resources on luxury goods relative to their utility, or made considerable charitable contributions that did not return economic benefits. They later concluded, however, that such conspicuous expenditure of resources incurred indirect benefits by raising prestige. Modern evolutionary psychologists now consider human male display of wealth as a costly signal strategy which is analogous to the peacock’s tail, thereby enhancing perceived attractiveness to women.

Daniel Kruger of the University of Michigan and Jessica Kruger at the University at Buffalo recruited two groups of undergraduate students who had to complete anonymous online surveys. The participants were presented with descriptions of two men who were purchasing cars. Both men had the same budget. However, one made a frugal purchase by buying a new car that’s reliable but rather boring. The other bought a used car but then spent the remaining budget on cosmetical enhancements such as larger rims, a new paint job, and a banging sound system.

Each participant, both male and female, had to rate each fictional character on dating and parenting behaviors, but also his interest in relationships and attractiveness to others. Consistently, for both males and females, the man with the flashy car was rated as being more interested in brief sexual relationships. Although this character was rated highly for the effort he made in securing a mate, he was rated poorly on his willingness to invest in a potential long-term romantic relationship. The man with the boring car scored much higher and received top marks as a life partner, parent, and provider.

“Participants demonstrated an intuitive understanding that men investing in the display of goods featuring exaggerated sensory properties have reproductive strategies with higher mating effort and greater interest in short-term sexual relationships, as well as lower paternal investment and interest in long-term committed romantic relationships than men investing in practical considerations,” explains Daniel Kruger.

The findings suggest that there are nuances in perceived male attractiveness that go-beyond the popular “man displays wealth, man signals he can care for offspring” paradigm.

“This contrasts with the notion that men’s conspicuous resource displays are attractive to women because they reliably signal expected future resource investment in partners and especially in offspring,” adds Jessica Kruger, who says the study increases researchers’ understanding of how human psychology and behavior applies to technologically advanced and wealthy societies.

Scientific reference: Kruger, D.J. & Kruger, J.S. (2018). What do Economically Costly Signals Signal? A Life History Framework for Interpreting Conspicuous Consumption, Evolutionary Psychological ScienceDOI: 10.1007/s40806-018-0151-y.

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