The Lipstick Effect

New research by Sarah Hill at TCU:

Dating back to the Great Depression, times of recession have consistently yielded anomalous gains for the beauty products industry, even while consumers rein in spending on household goods and recreational products. Journalists have dubbed this curiosity the “lipstick effect.” I recently sought to test the lipstick effect in a series of studies, the results of which were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Our findings confirmed that the lipstick effect is not only real, but deeply rooted in women’s mating psychology.

Hill not only examined the historical record of beauty product consumption, but conducted a series of lab experiments where she “primed” her subjects in various ways. For example, in one experiment she had participants read a newspaper article about the recent economic recession (the control group read an article about modern architecture) and then answer a questionare about how likely they were to buy particular beauty products. The participants, meanwhile, thought they were taking part in an experiment about reading comprehension and memory, with the product survey used only to distract them for several minutes to better test their recall of the article. This is just one of many different test Hill gave. So does the Lipstick Effect exist?

Four separate experiments, along with real-world data, all say yes. Our findings consistently supported the lipstick effect, as college-age women, when primed with news of economic instability, reported an increased desire to buy attractiveness-enhancing goods, along with a decreased desire to purchase goods that do not enhance one’s physical appearance. Our experiments also found that this increased desire for beauty products, clothing and accessories was fully mediated by a heightened preference for mates with resources.

Furthermore, we discovered that the lipstick effect and a woman’s desire to attract a mate with resources are unrelated to her independent resource access. Women of both higher and lower socioeconomic status expressed an increased desire to buy luxury beauty products when primed with recession cues. This suggests that an uncertain economic climate leads women to heighten mate attraction effort irrespective of their own resource need.

The reason is evolutionary. In good times (think: an abundance of food for, say, hunter-gatherers) it is better to invest the plentiful resources in oneself, while in times of scarcity it is better to reproduce immediately since you don’t know if you will otherwise perish before you have a chance to have offspring. If you are a woman trying to find a mate, during times of plenty there is a large supply of men with large resource stocks. During times of scarcity the opposite is true, so to attract a mate with ample resources you have to “turn up your game” so to speak.

I was surprised to hear that the evolutionary strategy wasn’t reversed; that is, I would have suspected that during times of scarcity there is more effort put toward caring for one’s self since reproducing further diminishes the per capita availability of already scarce resources. Apparently, however, research has shown that “individuals living in harsh environments marked by ecological resource scarcity and financial impoverishment tend to allocate effort toward more immediate reproduction than those living in more resource-abundant, financially secure environments.” This phenomenon is known as Life History Theory. If you’re interested, you can read more at the links below.

There is more at Scientific American here. Hill’s paper is here.

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