When the Going Gets Tough – Lipstick and Evolution

June 28, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

L’Oreal did not lose sales during the current recession.  And psychologist Sarah Hill says that this increase is part of a more general trend – “the lipstick effect.”  In a recession, women cut back on other stuff, but not cosmetics.

What makes L’Oreal worth it, even when times get tough, according to Hill, is evolutionary psychology.  (Hill’s new JPSP article  is here. She also has a shorter, more general write-up at Scientific American.)  It’s all about “reproductive strategy” – how to get your genes strewn about as much as possible. 
Human ancestors regularly went through cycles of abundance and famine, each of which favors different 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.

Got it? In good times, our human ancestors would try to get an education.  In hard times, they would try to get laid. 

Hill elaborates on the special problems for women.
For women, periods of scarcity also decrease the availability of quality mates, as women’s mate preferences reliably prioritize resource access.
“Reliably prioritize resource access” is from the SciAm blogpost, presumably the venue that’s reader-friendly for the general public.  What the sentence means, I think, is this:  A recession reduces the number of guys with enough money to take care of a family.

Those well-off guys, I mean males, thanks to evolution, are “men who seek in mates qualities related to fertility, such as youth and physical attractiveness.”  So a girl has to go even further in dolling herself up in order to snag one of them. 

It all makes sense, but it ignores one important factor – the economic  inequality between men and women.  The evol-psych explanation takes as a given that women must rely on men for “resource access” (which I think is roughly what you and I call “money.”)  What if women knew that their chances of getting a decent job were as good as a man’s, or better?  Would hard times still send them to the cosmetics counter?

Hill did include a measure of resource access, and found that it was not significantly related to the lipstick-effect, at least not in the lab experiments.  Here was the set-up: Subjects read an article that was either about the recession (“Worst Economic Crisis Since ’30s With No End in Sight”) or about “current architecture.” Then they were asked which products they preferred.  Women who read about the recession were more likely to go for (in the words of evolutionary psychologist C. Berry) “tight dresses and lipstick.”*  The “resource access” measure did not significantly alter that effect.  Rich girls and poor girls alike switched their preference to L'Oreal.

As for the guys, reading about the recession did not affect them in this way.  Their desire for “attractiveness products” was unchanged.

I never know what to make of psychology experiments.  Their elaborate contrivance gives them enviable control over the variables, but it also raises questions about their link to the real world.  In Hill’s experiments, as is typical, the subjects were “unmarried female university students” – what we used to call “college girls” (plus, in one of the experiments, college boys).  It would be interesting to see if actual recessions lead to lipstick-buying across the socio-economic landscape.  Evol-psych would predict that the effect should be most visible in places where the recession hits hardest.

It’s also worth noting that L’Oreal might have been the exception this time around.  Sales in the industry as a whole suffered in the recession and did not reach pre-recession levels till 2010, and much of the increase came from bargain hunters.  (An industry report is here.) That contradicts Hill’s lab experiment results showing that “the lipstick effect applies specifically to products that enhance beauty, even when those products are more expensive.”   The larger increase in cosmetics sales came in 2011, especially for nail products (up 59%, go figure).

The experiment’s “priming” with newspaper stories is also a problem.  I’m puzzled about the use of that “current architecture” article as a control.  Why not an article that was upsetting but had nothing to do with economics – something like “How Hackers Easily Get Your Phone Messages”?  Maybe any disturbing article would have the same lipstick effect, even though cell phone privacy has nothing to do with a woman’s ability to pass along her genes.  As the t-shirt says, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Maybe it doesn’t matter whether the tough-going is economic or something else.

Finally, I wonder about those guys.  If recessions make women but not men worry about their genes, asking college guys about face cream and tight polo shirts might not be the best way to operationalize the variable.  Why not ask about things that most guys think make them more attractive to women – probably consumer goods that signal cultural and economic capital?  Maybe college boys who read the recession article would shift their preference from video games to dress shirts and ties; or maybe the change would go the other way.  Whatever the outcome, I'm sure evol-psych would have an explanation. 

* I am not making this up: “The three attractiveness-enhancing products were (a) form-fitting jeans, (b) form-fitting black dress (women) / form-fitting polo shirt (men), and (c) lipstick (women) / men’s facial cream (men).”  And, as noted above, these were college girls, not all that much older than sweet little sixteen.

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