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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Of Peacocks and Porsches

Ferragamo, Rolex and Prada . . . oh my!

Pyramids that touch the heavens. Italian shoes handmade from the finest leather. The watch that announces that you own time itself. Through the pages of history and into modern times, displays of conspicuous consumption are as numerous as they are grand.

Defined by Thorstein Veblen in the late 1800s, conspicuous consumption is an economic behavior wherein one "attains and exhibits costly items to impress upon others that one possesses wealth or status."

Just as peacocks display their big, flashy tails to attract a peahen, the modern-day man uses Porsches and other luxury items to show off, and specifically, to attract a mate.

To better understand this time-honored tradition, Jill Sundie, assistant professor in the College of Business, and colleagues from Rice University, Arizona State University, the University of Minnesota and the University of New Mexico undertook a four-part study entitled "Peacocks, Porsches and Thorstein Veblen: Conspicuous Consumption as a Sexual Signaling System."

"It really wasn’t a surprise when our studies revealed that some women are attracted to a man who conspicuously consumes," Sundie said. "A physically attractive man who drives a flashy car, such as a Porsche, was more desirable for a date than the same man if he instead drove a Honda Civic."

Further, their research suggested that men who engage in conspicuous consumption, and specifically those who utilize it to attract mates, were more likely to be seeking uncommitted, short-term sexual relationships.

"However," Sundie said with a chuckle, "make no mistake about it, women have figured it out."

During the final study, the researchers measured perception of conspicuous consumption—that is, what women actually think about all those peacock plumes. And the results are ruffling a few feathers.

"What this study suggests is that women are wise to the game. Yes, an attractive man who drives a Porsche is more desirable, but only for a date," Sundie said. In other words, the same luxury items that men use to attract a mate had no impact on a man’s desirability when it comes to a woman’s selection of a long-term partner. Women, it seems, also equate men’s conspicuous consumption with an interest in having uncommitted sexual relationships.

"Prior research indicates that many college-age women are not very open to uncommitted sexual relationships. These women are more likely to be looking for faithful, committed partnerships," concluded Sundie. "At the end of the day, a man spending money on these very flashy and expensive items does not convey that message of intended commitment to a potential mate."

—Ashley Harris–Dumulong

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