Tricky one, isn’t it? If you’re collecting for a good cause, who do you approach – the girl with the designer coat and luxury handbag, or the more everyday woman with an outfit entirely from M&S? Both are engaging in conspicuous consumption, of course, albeit in different ways. One is more blatant than the other, but the M&S outfit nevertheless sends a particular signal all on its own, especially if you’re clad like me in Primark today!
The subject of conspicuous consumption – showing off with brands to send a particular signal to others – has been a subject of considerable research, both in evolutionary psychology itself and beyond. Typically, that research has tended to focus on this apparent signalling value, most commonly as it relates to sexual signalling and the need to attract a mate. At this level, there are some interesting sex differences evident. Men typically use brands to signal resources to available women (intra-sexual signalling), with ‘seeing off’ other male rivals an almost secondary consideration. Women, on the other hand, typically publicly consumer brands mainly to fend off rivals for the attentions of a male, attracting the guy himself taking a slightly secondary role. Put another way, men use designer brands to say “look at me, i’m great”, whereas with women it’s more a case of “look at me, i’m better than her”.
Aside from the fact that this view of the world is rather simplistic, the problem with sexual signalling is that it’s very difficult to either demonstrate experimentally or directly observe. Basically, the circumstances in which either sex signals this way in real life are rather limited and often confined to largely short-term encounters only. Reproductive benefits may thus drive a degree of conspicuous consumption, but by no means all – or even the majority – of it.
A more promising stream of work has focused on the use of designer brands as status-conferring signals and the benefits to be derived from displaying them to one’s own reference group. Here too, sex differences become evident. Men gain economic benefits from conspicuous consumption, especially from other men, whereas women gain in more social terms. The classic demonstration here is the correlation between brands and salary deserved. A man in a designer shirt, for instance, will be evaluated as deserving a higher salary than a man in more modest attire, especially when being evaluated by his male peers. This rarely works when a woman in designer clothing is being evaluated in similar ways, and it can even backfire in that she may be considered worthy of a lower salary. However, a woman in a social situation with strangers, such as a market researcher stopping people in the mall, will always get considerably more positive responses than a male colleague ever would.
The public dimension of signalling is also of crucial importance, of course, because the whole point of conspicuous consumption is that it is playing to an audience. Studies here have found that a woman with a designer bag will choose healthier food options in a restaurant or coffee shop, but she orders just as much junk food as anyone else when ordering a takeaway in the comfort of her own home. Moreover, when asked to donate to a good cause, our label-toting woman will respond more favourably in a public setting, but will often be meaner than the friend with a Primark bag when responding to an email request for donations or a telephone cold-caller. Men also follow these general trends, but to a significantly lesser extent, which is pretty much as we’d expect given that they are more oriented toward the economic gains from signalling than the social ones.
So, where does all this leave us when it comes to the question I posed at the beginning of this post – if collecting for charity, do we approach LV handbag girl or Ms M&S? The answer is: depends who they are with! LV Girl is more oriented toward social displays of altruism, so the will give considerably more if accompanied by her friends than Ms M&S ever would. If she is on her own, however, best stick to Ms M&S – she is the one who will more consistently give and, if LV Girl is alone, then the potential donation from Ms M&S will be at least the same and probably higher!