These studies are largely based on “precious signaling theory” — a model borrowed from evolutionary biology that suggests that striking displays that are difficult to acquire, such as the elaborate and colorful nests of bowerbirds, serve a vital function in signaling one’s desirable traits.
In humans, the signals displayed by males and females tend to differ, due to the different traits believed to be attractive to the opposite sex based on evolutionary pressures.
According to the costly signaling theory, men should try to display their wealth and resources to women, while women should advertise their helpfulness and kindness to men.
But how does this relate to spending?
One study investigated this question by showing half of the participant’s pictures of attractive people of the opposite sex or having them read a scenario about meeting an attractive person for a romantic walk on the beach.
The other half read a neutral screenplay that had nothing to do with attraction. The results showed that men thinking about romance were more likely to report spending money on notable luxury goods, such as a new car, a new watch, a new mobile phone, or a nice vacation.
Women, on the other hand, did not increase their desire for luxury goods when they thought about meeting a new partner. However, such thoughts increased their desire to be altruistic and helpful (this was determined by a question to both women and men about how much volunteer work they were willing to do when they had free time).
Another set of studies found that men were primarily interested in making luxury purchases after reading a screenplay about a fleeting romance, rather than a potential long-term relationship. This was especially the case with men who were already more interested in short-term relationships than long-term partnerships.
Interestingly, women reported being more attracted to such conspicuously consuming men if they were looking for a short-term relationship, but not long-term.
But what about women?
One study found that women who thought of female romantic rivals trying to poach their partners were more likely to buy luxury goods. This effect was not found when they could not imagine attractive rivals nearby. However, the study did not examine the extent to which men’s consumption may be related to the fear of losing a partner.
Another study looked at how women’s spending patterns would change during an economic recession. From a list of items, women chose more objects related to grooming when thinking about a recession, compared to no recession. However, non-caring items like headphones were more likely to be chosen if they weren’t thinking about a recession. Women also reported being more likely to attract a partner with resources (such as money) when thinking about a recession.
But how do we spend if we’re less optimistic about our romantic chances? A study by me and my colleagues found that men are willing to pay more for a flashy luxury car after reflecting on a romantic rejection. This may be due to their desire to attract a new partner after their self-esteem has been affected.
However, women show the opposite pattern: they are willing to pay more for a luxury car after thinking about romantic success, probably because they see the car as a sign of commitment to their partner.