Conspicuous displays of luxury brands can influence perceptions of men’s relationship preferences

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New research in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides evidence that displays of luxury product logos can influence perceptions of men’s relationship preferences and their upbringing. The findings indicate that college students associate conspicuous displays of wealth among men with short-term mating motives and contexts.

“I am interested in real-world applications for theory and addressing important social issues with science,” said study author Daniel J. Kruger of the University of Michigan. “Evolutionary psychology gets lots of attention for studies related to sexuality, which is no surprise — everyone knows that sex sells. There is also great potential for other areas of life, including how people think about and use resources.”

Kruger was particularly interested in examining the topic through the lens of life history theory, a body of research indicating that early life experiences can shape an individual’s behavior toward relationships and life in general. Those who experience unpredictable childhoods develop a fast life strategy that emphasizes insecure attachments, immediate gratification, and risky behaviors. Those with a more stable childhood, on the other hand, develop a slow life strategy that emphasizes long-term goals, greater investments, and reduced aggression.

“I am very enthusiastic about life history theory as a framework for understanding human psychology and behavior,” Kruger said. “It is very extensively used in biology to understand other species, and it is relevant to many important areas of psychology.”

In two studies, 552 undergraduate students viewed polo shirts with small and large versions of a luxury clothing brand logo in randomized order. The participants were asked to think of the man who owned the shirt and rate his characteristics.

Men owning the large logo shirts were seen as less willing to provide long-term paternal investments, such as devoting resources to supporting a family, and less interested in a long-term committed relationships compared to men owning shirts displaying a smaller logo. The large logo shirts were also associated with being more interested in brief sexual affairs and being more flirtatious.

“We use consumer products as an extension of our phenotype, meaning that there are parallels with physiological characteristics across species and how these characteristics influence social and sexual relationships,” Kruger told PsyPost.

In line with life history theory, men owning the large logo shirts were seen as higher in developmental environment unpredictability compared to men owning shirts displaying a smaller logo. That is, men owning the large logo shirts were assumed to have grown up in a family that moved more often, lived in a more violent area, or lacked resources.

“Participants intuitively recognized that variation in individual behavioral strategies reflects adaptations to developmental conditions, a central tenet of Life History Theory. Participants associated less predictable developmental environments with reproductive strategies that are higher in mating effort and lower in paternal investment,” Kruger explained.

The size of the brand logo was not associated with physiological characteristics such as upper body strength or voice pitch. But men owning the large logo shirts were assumed to have higher facial masculinity, while men owning the large logo shirts were assumed to be taller.

In a third study, which included 615 undergraduates, male participants were asked which shirt they would wear in specific social contexts and female participants were asked which shirt they thought men would be more likely to wear. Men were most likely to wear the large logo shirt when trying to intimidate rivals in a team sport competition and when going to a party that someone they are attracted to is attending. They were least likely to wear the large logo shirt when meeting their girlfriend’s parents for the first time or interviewing for a job. A similar pattern emerged among women.

However, the study failed to find evidence for “phenotypic alignment.” When asked if they would buy the shirt with the large logo or the shirt with the small logo for themselves or their boyfriends, most participants preferred the shirt with the small logo, regardless of their own self-reported mating effort, parenting effort, or developmental environment unpredictability.

But undergraduates reported a relatively low level of developmental environment unpredictability, which could have affected the results. “The restricted socioeconomic and life history range of participants may have prevented the confirmation of relationships between participants’ own life history variation and preferences for logo size,” Kruger explained in his study

“We need to know more about why people associate these product features with motivations and behaviors,” Kruger told PsyPost. “Does clothing, etc., trick our evolved capacities to evaluate the physiologies of potential mates? Is this just about getting attention via a flashy display?”

“This is just the first study in what will hopefully be a productive research program,” he added. “There is great potential for additional studies on phenotypic mimicry, where consumer product features mimic secondary sex characteristics and function in similar ways to those physiological characteristics.”

The study, “Phenotypic Mimicry Distinguishes Cues of Mating Competition From Paternal Investment in Men’s Conspicuous Consumption“, was published April 15, 2021.