Charity, Generosity and the LV Handbag

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!

Scent of a (wo-)man?

Having trouble sleeping? Forget taking the Nytol or those irksome Melatonin supplements to help you get a good night’s rest. Seems all you need to do is sniff a dirty t-shirt! Well, not just anyone’s t-shirt, of course…  Psychologists have long known that scent plays an important role in sexual attraction. Particular scents determine who we find attractive and when, for instance, and those of us with a keener sense of smell typically report better quality intercourse.

There is even evidence that the decline in olfactory abilities associated with smoking reduces the number of orgasms a woman experiences. And when it comes to long-term relationships, the scent of one’s partner is sufficient to reduce feelings of anxiety and the physiological responses associated with stress. New research published by Hofer and Chen in Psychological Sciencetakes our understanding of the effects of a partner’s scent a step further by exploring the impact it can have on sleep patterns and quality. In a very well-designed set of experiments, the authors found that simply sleeping with a partner’s worn t-shirt was enough to increase sleep in participants experiencing disruptions to sleep patterns, when compared with control participants sleeping with either a clean t-shirt or, perhaps bizarrely, one worn by an unidentified third-party. The increase in length of sleep was accompanied by a linear increase in melatonin in the brain, suggesting that the scent itself was exerting its effect via a corresponding normal response. Most interestingly, most participants could correctly identify their partner’s scent 70% of the time, though simply telling someone that scent was that of the partner was enough to fool some participants some of the time.

Why does this happen? It’s not a particularly surprising finding when considered in the light of evolutionary theory. The presence of a partner in a pair-bonded relationship reduces stress and anxiety through the sense of security it brings, those emotional responses being triggered by a whole range of hormonal effects. It’s therefore perfectly logical that melatonin production would be one of those hormonal effects. Moreover, significant sex differences were observed among the sample, women experiencing a larger increase in both duration and quality of sleep than men – an effect consistent with the higher sense of security women report a stable relationship brings in comparison to men.

So where does this leave those if us who have trouble sleeping and are prone to spending far too much money on often-ineffective over-the-counter remedies? Well, all we need is a partner willing to let us cuddle up to their dirty t-shirt for the night and this will do far more good than any pill or potion. Oh, and if they happen to be up-to-date with their laundry and don’t have one to hand, many of us will be fooled if they give us someone else’s and just pretend it is theirs!

Mmmmnnnn… best not ask where it came from though, eh?

Eat your greens!

I guess it’s one of those cliches all around the world, isn’t it?  Families sitting round the dining table (ok, probably the TV or something), parents desperately trying to convince protesting kids to eat their greens because they’re good for them, they’ll make them big and strong, they taste yummy… You get the idea. Rarely works, not even when the manufacturers helpfully supply potatoes shaped like Daleks, goldfish or Katy Perry. Hopeless!

Research by Maimaran and Fishbach in the  Journal of Consumer Research, however, sheds a little more light on what might be going on here;  why can we very rarely sell fruit and vegetables and other healthy stuff to our children?  The problem appears to be that we try too hard or, in fact, that we are actually trying at all.  In an innovative set of experiments, the researchers found that telling children to eat their greens because they are good for them had very little effect at all, whereas trying to convince them that they tasted good fared only slightly better.  By far the best strategy appeared to be to say, well, nothing at all, but just dump them on the plate.  Consumption of a range of healthy foods was at its highest when the children were simply given their meal and left to get on with it!

Why should this be the case, I wonder?  Well, probably the best explanation, also hinted at by the authors, is what I like to call “proposition overload”.  In marketing, we are constantly striving to provide customers with a unique set of value propositions, something that makes this run-of-the-mill hatchback car better than that almost-identical one parked next to it.  Sometimes, we simply try to hard and offer too many value propositions from a single product, so the consumer faces information overload and the propositions themselves become diluted.  This appears to be what’s going on when parents try to persuade their reluctant children to eat healthy foods; they try so hard with all the potential virtues that the messages become confused and the real value to the child is lost.

And the message for marketers here generally?  Don’t overdo the value propositions you are trying to sell to your customers.  This may well be an Internet-enabled games console, with built-in television, coffee-maker and baby monitor, but much better to describe it simply as the “latest entertainment system” if you want  to achieve higher sales!

The Grape Apes (or, Why do primates love a tipple?)

Mixed-Ape-cropWe all know the potentially harmful effects of alcohol, both on our health and on society, so a question I’m often asked is why the motivation to consume such substances would have evolved in the first place.  Given that the problems of over-consumption have been well documented over thousands of years, surely natural selection would have long ago determined that teetotal humans would have had some competitive advantage?

Leaving aside the fact that evolution doesn’t quite work like that and according to such timescales, there are many reasons why a seemingly maladaptive behaviour – at least when taken at face value – may have been selected for and, in fact, could well be adaptive after all.  When it comes to alcohol, this is certainly the case and we also need to remember that, as always, a behaviour we think of as being particularly human is not actually unique to us at all.

In their fascinating new book, Alcohol and Humans: A Long and Social Affair, Kimberley Hockings and Robin Dunbar present a collection of thought-provoking essays that explore just such issues and the the fact that apes generally seem to have developed a taste for alcohol (well, at least in its ‘rotten fruit’ form) at around the same time in our evolutionary history.  I won’t spoil enjoyment of the book, which i’d whole-heartedly recommend, by saying too much here.  However, there are three main themes running through the essays that I will flag up as being of interest.  First, there is the often-cited health benefits of drinking wine-in-moderation, which the book sheds some new light on through its consideration of more primate-general trends.  Then there is what I suppose is a more obvious survival-related advantage in that wines and beers in particular can be high in calories, something that would give such beverages enhanced appeal in the calorie-scarce environment inhabited by our ancestors. And then there are the more positive social consequences of sharing alcohol, a practice with a long social and cultural heritage that cements the tribal cohesion all primate colonies need in order to survive, reproduce and pass on their genes to subsequent generations.

All things considered, and not withstanding all the quite obvious negative consequences of alcohol (ab-)use, Hockings and Dunbar do an excellent job in presenting a new and balanced account of the ape obsession with beers, wines and spirits.  More than many other books, this one gets across the key message of evolution; namely, that it is about overall cost-benefit ratios, rather than whether something is useful or harmful on one specific dimension.

For me, though, the book perhaps also gives a clue as to why from Monkey Shoulder Whisky to Blue Monkey Ale, alcohol brands containing references to monkeys seem strangely appealing to modern humans!

Want to write a best-seller? The secret is pyramid-shaped

newpyramid_0Why is a seemingly quintessential English author such as Jane Austen so popular in South Korea? What makes one movie an international box-office success while another is a huge flop? And why is the waist-to-hip ratio of games character Lara Croft so crucial to global sales?



Those of us who study evolutionary consumer psychology have long known that the answer to questions such as these lies in neo-Darwinism.  Quite simply, the things we desire, purchase and consume are a result of our brain’s unique evolutionary heritage, and that includes cultural products such as music, literature and art. There is a vast body of research exploring the evolutionary themes inherent in a broad range of modern cultural phenomena, an interpretive exercise that really owes its origins more to Carl Jung and the early psychoanalysts.

Much of this literature is quite complex, though always fascinating, so it is hard to always think of an easy entry-point for the neo-Darwinian newbie.  This recent post by evolutionary psychologist Doug Kenrick, however, is a nice route into the subject, applying Kenrick’s own interesting re-imagining of Maslow’s (in-)famous pyramid of needs to an analysis of Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, the New York Times best-selling novel of 2019.

Owens’ novel – in the proud tradition of Austen, Conan Doyle and Stoker – is riddled with story elements of huge significance to the Darwinian imperative to survive, reproduce and pass on our genes to the next generation.  Elements which also fit neatly onto levels of Kenrick’s own funky new pyramid too, it seems.  A brief-but-clever introduction to a complex subject, as well as to the whole fundamental motivations topic itself.