Women and Luxury Products: How a New Study Brings Up Old Anxieties

A new paper seems to perpetuate tired, depressing stereotypes about women and money. Is there anything redeeming about it?

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

When I first read an excerpt from the University of Minnesota study "Conspicuous Consumption, Relationships, and Rivals," I wanted to rename it "Women Buy Stuff to Snub Other Women and Impress Men" and move on. The authors hypothesized that while men buy and flaunt luxury products to attract women, women seek designer goods to intimidate other women and protect romantic relationships with men. At a glance, the study seems to rehash an old stereotype and reinforce it with new science. Women are not insecure spendthrifts ("I bought this really expensive purse to make myself feel better!"), but materialistic mean girls ("I bought this really expensive purse to make other women think my boyfriend bought it for me!"). The claims are similar, but the hub of insecurity is different: Women who doubt that they are "enough," versus women who doubt others can see that they're enough. Both options are depressing.

To test the premise of their hypothesis, researchers Yajin Wang and Professor Vladas Griskevicius told women to imagine that they were at a social event with a romantic partner. The researchers then asked the participants if they believed their partner's devotion would be assessed according to other women's perception of how expensive their clothes were. Griskevicius says the results surprised him: 61.8 percent of the women--a mix of single, dating, and married people--believed that wearing expensive, designer clothes signaled to other women that their partner cared more for them. Nearly 54 percent believed a more expensive outfit conveyed their partner was more committed. These women are not actively using expensive accessories as "shields," but they are inferring that a man's devotion to his partner is tied to the flashiness of her attire.

What distinguishes this study from others in the field of conspicuous consumption is that it is unconcerned with self-esteem or personal status. This 2010 study in the Journal of Experimental Social concludes that people purchase conspicuous goods to "repair self-threat." This one from Tilburg University found positive associations between personal status and accumulation of luxury products. The University of Minnesota study, on the other hand, rules out desire for social status and self-worth as motivations for buying expensive items. Griskevicius and Wang controlled for those emotions by forming experimental groups that simulated feelings of jealousy, competition, or inadequacy.

In the first, "Mate Guarding," participants envisioned another woman coming onto their dates at a party; the second, the "Female Condition," required participants to imagine attending a party with their partner and interacting with another woman sans inappropriate flirting; and in the third scenario, "Self-Esteem Threat," participants imagined doing poorly on a work assignment and discussing it with their boss. Finally, all three groups indicated how much money they would spend on conspicuous luxury items (cars, shoes, jewelry) versus less visible ones (washing machines, alarm clocks, kitchen knives). Spending on inconspicuous goods was equivalent among all three groups, but spending on conspicuous items was the highest for the Mate Guarders. In other words, if faced with the threat of romantic competition, women in the study would most likely retaliate by buying and showing off an oversized Chanel bag.

I thought this was pretty absurd until Professor Griskevicius pointed out that this happens on a smaller scale--just look at engagement ring mania. "If a woman's wearing a really expensive engagement ring, it's easy to think, 'Wow, her fiancé must really like her!'" he says. "Women are making similar inferences with products like shoes and handbags." Most traditional heterosexual marriages today still begin with a man proposing to a woman, so it's pretty easy to guess who bought the ring. This study suggests that this inference carries over to women's other high-end purchases. For example, unless participants were explicitly told otherwise, they "spontaneously" assumed that, on average, a man had paid for nearly 60 percent of a woman's luxury possessions.

The findings seem strangely anachronistic in our current world where women's ability to support themselves or indulge is celebrated. Even years ago, Sex and the City treated Carrie's jaw-dropping shoe budget as more of a charming personality quirk than a tool for keeping a man. Carrie was often concerned with how she looked compared to other women (models, twenty-somethings, French ex-wives), but her spending was not used as a weapon against other women to prove the depth of a man's love. In fact, that would have gone against the overall spirit of the show. More recently, songs like Ne-Yo's "Miss Independent" herald women whose sexiest traits include going to work and paying off their bills on time, all by themselves. Oddly, the people that come closest to enacting the conclusions of the University of Minnesota study are contestants on The Bachelor who are in an actual competition, and fight over roses and one-on-one dates.

The context of the University of Minnesota study is certainly limited. It examines women's reactions in a hypothetical context and is confined to straight women in the United States. (Griskevicius says the pool of same-sex participants is still small in his field.) Still, the professor believes the study's effect would be maintained across culture and orientation, not because women are hopelessly self-loathing, catty, or codependent. Instead, he argues, it's because many women's idea of stability is still tied to men holding the purse strings. "The idea behind it is that showing these products makes women feel more secure in their relationships," he says. In this case, the goal is to make sure other people recognize that security, too.