What Do Economically Costly Signals Signal?: a Life History Framework for Interpreting Conspicuous Consumption

Abstract

Compared to women, men have a greater tendency to make conspicuous wealth displays and typically make greater contributions in non-somatic provisioning. Male resource displays often predict future paternal resource investments; however, some conspicuous displays may function as mating effort at the cost of investment potential. Men who tend to make such displays may have less interest in long-term relationship investment and commitment and greater interest in short-term sexual relationships. Undergraduates read descriptions of two men purchasing automobiles with the same budget. One man purchased a new car for the sake of reliability (frugal investment); the other purchased a used car and allocated the remaining funds to conspicuous display features (new paint, larger wheels, louder sound system). Participants rated each character on life history characteristics, relationship interests, and relationship attractiveness. Participants rated the man who invested in flashy display higher on mating effort, lower on parental investment, higher on interest in brief sexual affairs, lower on interest in long-term committed romantic relationships, higher in attractiveness to women for brief sexual affairs, and lower in attractiveness to women for long-term committed romantic relationships, compared to the man with a frugal investment strategy. Participants demonstrated an intuitive understanding that some male conspicuous displays can indicate faster life history strategies. Human male luxury displays associated with high mating effort life histories may mimic the properties of male secondary sexual characteristics across species, and these displays may be more prevalent in environments fostering faster life histories.

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Correspondence to Daniel J. Kruger.

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We thank Anne K. Gordon for feedback on this manuscript.

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Kruger, D.J., Kruger, J.S. What Do Economically Costly Signals Signal?: a Life History Framework for Interpreting Conspicuous Consumption. Evolutionary Psychological Science 4, 420–427 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40806-018-0151-y

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Keywords

  • Conspicuous consumption
  • Costly signaling
  • Life history
  • Mating effort
  • Parental investment