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Lipstick, the Recession and Evolutionary Psychology


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In 2008, when many companies reported record declines in sales amidst a global economic recession, L’Oréal, one of the world’s largest cosmetic manufacturers, was somehow immune to the downturn. In fact, L’Oréal enjoyed a sales growth of 5.3% that year—why? Why was L’Oréal the apparent beneficiary of a worldwide economic crisis?

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.

While economic recessions are a recent development in human history, fluctuations in prosperity and resource availability are not. Human ancestors regularly went through cycles of abundance and famine, each of which favorsdifferent reproductive strategies. While periods of abundance favor strategies associated with postponing reproduction in favor of one’s own development (e.g., by pursuing an education), periods of scarcity favor more immediate reproduction. The latter strategy is more successful during times of resource scarcity because it decreases the likelihood that one will perish before having the chance to reproduce.

For women, periods of scarcity also decrease the availability of quality mates, as women’s mate preferences reliably prioritize resource access. This preference stems from the important role that mates’ resources have played in women’s reproductive success. Because economic recessions are associated with higher unemployment and minimal or negative returns on investments, news of a recession may therefore signal to women that financially secure men—those able to invest resources in rearing offspring—are becoming scarce.

Across species, female mate preferences, as well as the effort spent on attracting a suitable mate, are amplified when high-quality males are in short supply, as the reward for discriminating between potential partners is greater. As for the best way to attract males, it’s no secret that you might want to look your best. Selection has favored men who seek in mates qualities related to fertility, such as youth and physical attractiveness. Correspondingly, women’s increased efforts to attract mates most often take the form of enhancing their physical appearance.

Which brings us to lipstick and designer jeans, high-heeled boots and perfume. Would recession cues increase women’s desire to buy these products?

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.

While many journalists who have written about the lipstick effect have theorized that it represents women’s therapeutic spending on cheap indulgences, we found that the lipstick effect applies specifically to products that enhance beauty, even when those products are more expensive. Recession cues increased women’s desire to buy high-end cosmetics and designer clothing, but not to buy budget-line beauty products, which were rated less effective at improving one’s appearance.

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 national and global economies haven’t been doing well in a long time, and the forecast for recovery appears bleak. Very few industries have done well the past five years—but if there’s one industry that just might be recession-proof, perhaps it’s the one that manufactures our lipstick.

Sarah Hill About the Author: Sarah Hill is an assistant professor of psychology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Follow on Twitter @hill_se.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 13 Comments

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  1. 1. Colo_kea 11:28 am 06/27/2012

    Aren’t there other explanations besides a desire to attract a mate? This just sounds so sexist! I think it’s more about creativity and the ability to change a situation. When economic times are bad, we can still make something better, even if it’s just something as superficial as our appearance. I’m not a makeup person, but I sometimes enjoy putting on some lipstick just as a “perk-me-up,” much like, I don’t know, a latte, but more immediate and cheaper (if you really think about it, a daily dose of lipstick is much much less expense than other “luxuries”).

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  2. 2. simonjeremy 3:41 am 06/28/2012

    Dear Professor
    As a member of the faculty, you must surely realize the importance of writing well. If we don’t use the proper words in English, we may well fail to communicate successfully. There is no exoneration, therefore, for the lamentable lapse evident in your usage of ‘reign in’ (second line, second paragraph). Even country bumpkins can tell the difference between a king or queen (who reigns) and a strip of leather used to control a horse. Even a country bumpkin, I wrote. I should have written: especially a country bumpkin in Texas horse country!

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  3. 3. simonjeremy 3:42 am 06/28/2012

    In case you didn’t quite grasp the point, one ‘reins in’ one’s spending.

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  4. 4. northernguy 2:20 pm 06/28/2012

    Of course one can _rain_ on someones parade by launching pedantry rather than simply pointing out a possible typo.

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  5. 5. Josuah 8:31 pm 06/28/2012

    @Colo_kea the article mentions that their “experiments also found that this increased desire for beauty products, clothing and accessories was fully mediated by a heightened preference for mates with resources.”

    From the paper:
    “Therefore, in Study 3, we tested whether the strength of women’s preference for financial security in a mate would mediate the relationship of how economic recession cues influence women’s desire for attractiveness-enhancing products.”

    In other words, yes, they found attracting a mate was a strong reason for using expensive lipstick more often during a recession.

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  6. 6. ankitsoni9 10:44 pm 06/28/2012

    @simonjeremy This is the content of your comment: “I think you meant ‘rein in’ (as in the strip of leather used to control a horse) rather than ‘reign in’ (as in a kings reign) in the second line of the second paragraph”

    The rest is superfluous. One of the aspects of writing well is brevity – master it.

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  7. 7. simonjeremy 3:27 am 06/29/2012

    ‘Reign in’ was not a typo and calling it out was not pedantry. One can find the same misusage in all kinds of publications, both on and off the Web, even in the New Yorker once, despite that magazine’s reputation as a fearsome guardian of the English language. My point is simple: if a professor at an University is incapable of using the language correctly, if she cannot detect and correct her misusages or even open a dictionary, what confidence can we have that she knows her own subject? The proper response from the Professor would have been a humble apology, simple, dignified, straightforward. Apparently, she not only is not in command of her mother tongue, she does not know what to do when making a mistake.

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  8. 8. Colo_kea 8:08 pm 06/29/2012

    Oh brother. Can someone get past the silly word argument? I restate one of my points: Lipstick is actually much LESS expensive than other items because it lasts a long time. Cheaper than a latte, is what I said.

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  9. 9. random_dude 11:13 pm 06/29/2012

    Before a singular noun with a hard “u”, like university, the proper article is “a”, not “an”. I look forward to a humble apology, simple, dignified, straightforward. As far as Professor Hill giving an apology, maybe she has better things to do than read comment threads.

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  10. 10. simonjeremy 12:32 am 06/30/2012

    Yo random dude.
    If you had bothered to check the rule on ‘university’, you will have found that when English is spoken, we say ‘a’, but when written, the grammatical rule of ‘an’ prevails.
    As for an apology, the issue is most definitely one of intellectual honesty. Maybe being on the faculty of Texas Christian University means never having to say sorry. In real universities, intellectual honesty begins with the knowledge of ‘mea culpa’. People who can’t acknowledge their own errors should not be teaching kids.

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  11. 11. Germanicus 10:24 am 06/30/2012

    It’s all driven by evo-devo…seeking to pass along a better genome, females cheat oftener during max fertility, potentiated by hair-flipping, cup elevation & brighter make-up…inferior males will optomize height, muscularity, physiognomy, charm, grace & sonority via somatic & psychodynamic re-engineering [Delphi 2080-2090 CE?]…of course, downloading mind & memory to clones will render supra instantaneous [2130 CE ?], assuming we can circumvent wave-front collapse [collateral benisons: teleportation, spacetime surfing, digital storage of superior specimens]…keep chuckling, but stay tuned.

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  12. 12. GormGrimm 11:48 am 07/1/2012

    This seems to contradict the skirt length theory (http://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/skirtlengththeory.asp).

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  13. 13. mike_midwest 1:56 pm 07/4/2012

    There is the observation or stereotype that lower income women dress a bit flashier or gaudier than middle income or professional women (excluding celebrities). Does this fit with the lipstick effect? I know this touches on some sensitive issues and do not mean to offend anyone.

    The skirt length theory GormGrimm mentions is also interesting. I would note that shorter shirts are cheaper than long ones, so you’d think a recession would favor the former from a cost perspective at least.

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