Young women become more vain during recessions, U of M prof finds

Do young women become more vain during tough economic times? One U of M prof thinks so.
Do young women become more vain during tough economic times? One U of M prof thinks so.

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A new study co-authored by Vlad Griskevicius, a psychology professor at the U of M's Carlson's School of Management, finds that young women are more apt to invest in their physical appearance during recessions.

Entitled "Boosting Beauty in Economic Decline: Mating, Spending, and the Lipstick Effect," the study is rejected by some academics who think researchers overgeneralized in attributing their findings to 'women's psychology.'

Researchers took 154 university students -- 82 women and 72 men -- and gave them fictitious news article about the dire economy. They were then asked if the articles led them to believe there are less people in their social circle with a good job, steady income, and good looks.

Unsurprisingly, researchers found that while the articles didn't impact students' perceptions regarding their peers' physical characteristics, it did lead them to believe less of their colleagues had good jobs and steady incomes.

The students were then asked about their desire to purchase a variety of products, including form-fitting jeans, black dresses (for women) and polo shirts (for men), and gender-specific toiletries. Men didn't show any proclivity toward particular products after reading the dire economic articles, but for women, a "significant interaction between priming condition and product type" emerged. Young ladies were more apt to want to purchase products intended to make them look good.

That "interaction" conformed with researchers' hypothesis, which was: "Because economic recessions are reasoned to prompt women to expend more effort on mate attraction, is it possible that they may spur women to spend more on products that make them more attractive?"

"As predicted, women in the recession condition reported a significantly greater desire to purchase products that could enhance appearance compared with women in the control condition," the paper says.

In an interview with ABC News, Julie Nelson, chairwoman of the economic department at the University of Massachusetts, questions whether it's appropriate to ascribe the female students' proclivity for beauty products to 'women's psychology.'

"[The study] claims to find that spending more on beauty-enhancing products during recessions is an aspect of 'women's psychology,' and strongly suggests that this is an evolved response to competition for mates in hard times," Nelson said. "The first part of this is a gross over-generalization, while the second is speculative."

But the U of M's Griskevicius rejects the notion that self-esteem explanations provide a better interpretation of the study's results than the purportedly evolutionary link between tough economic times and young females' desire to secure mates.

"While self-esteem may certainly be involved, attributing the lipstick effect only to self-esteem does not provide an alternative explanation to evolution -- in the same way that attributing a peacock displaying its tail to self-esteem is not an alternative explanation to the evolutionary reason why peacocks display their tails," he told ABC News.

"The human brain evolved following the same principles of natural selection as the brains of all other living organisms," Griskevicius continued. "This means that human behavior is rooted in our evolutionary history as much as the behavior of all other living organisms."

Other critics point out that researchers have previously found links between tough economic times and males' propensity to spend money on their appearance -- for instance, one study linked the Great Depression with increased sales of hair dye -- drawing into question the notion that heightened concern about physical appearance in bad economies is a uniquely female thing.

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