I’m probably not the only person who’s wondered why muscle-car expos and auto-enthusiast magazines often feature attractive female models, or “car babes,” posing suggestively alongside (or on top of!) luxurious vehicles. Doesn’t the eye candy distract prospective buyers from the cars?
Maybe not. Turns out feminine curves and cold chrome aren’t such an unlikely combination after all. It all boils down to the need to impress a potential mate.
To test this in an experiment, researchers randomly assigned male participants to one of two conditions.1 In the control condition, they were greeted by a female assistant who was dressed plainly in a pair of jeans, a loose button-down shirt, and glasses, with her hair tied up in a ponytail. In the mating-cue condition, the same female assistant dressed sexily, donning high heels, a miniskirt, and a cleavage-baring top, minus the ponytail and glasses. In other words, in the mating-cue condition, the female assistant played the part of “hot,” while in the control condition, she was “not.”
After interacting with the assistant, each man sat at a computer to view a series of timed images. Each image featured six products. The men had only 1 second to study the image before it disappeared, and then they had to recall as many of the products as they could in the 25 seconds given before the computer moved on to another image. In each of the images, one of the six products shown was always a status item (e.g., luxury car, mansion, expensive electronics), while the remaining five images were of functional items (e.g., stapler, towel, umbrella, mug). Finally, each man reported his relationship status before leaving.
Men in committed relationships recalled the same proportion of status items, regardless of the female assistant’s attire. (Let’s hear it for commitment!) Single men, on the other hand, remembered a significantly higher proportion of status items when the assistant was dressed seductively. That is, the assistant’s sexy outfit and presentation activated a mating cue that led the single men to notice products that would enhance or signal their status (such as Porsches, iPods, and Breitling watches), as well as to be interested in the status items. Cha-ching!
Why might a peek of long legs or cleavage get guys to start pulling out their cash? According to evolutionary psychology, men and women look for traits in a potential mate that will allow them to reproduce successfully and pass on their genes. In particular, men tend to seek partners who are young and fertile,2 while women seek partners who have the status or resources to provide for their offspring.3 Therefore, if a man becomes interested in a woman, he must attract her by showing that he’s worthy of her assets. With this goal in mind, he becomes more likely to pay attention to4 and pursue things (like pricey goods)5 that will help him entice a mate.
I wonder if companies that sell luxury goods realize what a gold mine it would be to advertise during the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. If they do…better keep an eye on your wallet, fellas. You could find yourself shopping for a slick new gadget or Maserati before you know it.
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1Janssens, K., Pandelaere, M., Van den Bergh, B., Millet, K., Lens, I., & Roe, K. (2011). Can buy me love: Mate attraction goals lead to perceptual readiness for status products. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(1), 254-258. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.08.009
2Buss, D. M. & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100(2), 204–232. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.100.2.204
3Geary, D. C. (2000). Evolution and proximate expression of human paternal investment. Psychological Bulletin, 126(1), 55–77. doi: 10.1037//0033-2909.126.1.55
4Bruner, J. S. (1957). On perceptual readiness. Psychological Review, 64(2), 123–152. doi: 10.1037/h0043805
5Ferguson, M. J. (2008). On becoming ready to pursue a goal you don’t know you have: Effects of nonconscious goals on evaluative readiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1268–1294. doi: 10.1037/a0013263
Dr. Helen Lee Lin – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Helen’s past research has focused on potential problems in relationships, such as keeping secrets from a significant other. She is also interested in communication as well as the use and consumption of media in relationships, and is planning to work in applied contexts for her future projects.