The Quest For the “Lipstick Effect”

In every economic downturn some intrepid journalist pens a story about the “Lipstick Effect” — the tendency for women to buy more beauty products when the economy is in bad shape. In theory, the behavior is driven by evolutionary concerns. With fewer men able to offer the security of financial stability, women must enhance their beauty in order to deal with the increased competition.

Although economic data provides some support for the Lipstick Effect, there has never been any experimental evidence that demonstrates its existence or explains why it arises. Nevertheless, a group of researchers led by Sarah Hill and Christopher Rodeheffer of TCU decided to put on their Indiana Jones hats and attempt to prove to the world once and for all that the Lipstick Effect is real.

The researchers began by having subjects read articles that were either about the recent economic downturn or architectural design. They then asked subjects to rate how much they desired certain beauty-related or non-beauty related products. Those who read about the recession had a decreased desire to purchase non-beauty products, regardless of whether they were male or female. However, while men also had less desire to purchase beauty-related products, women had an increased desire to purchased beauty-related products.

A follow up experiment found that the female desire for beauty products was mediated by their desire for financial security in a relationship partner, and a third experiment ruled out the possibility that the beauty products were only desired because they were inexpensive. In a final experiment, subjects primed to think about the bad economy were more likely to choose one of two identical products if its advertising slogan focused on attracting a mate.

One interesting question that remains is whether the female response would be different if the cultural circumstances were different. What if there’s a gun shortage in a country rife with violence? Would the same kind of lipstick effect emerge? Or what if there’s a recession in a small country where it’s much more common for people to move away. If women are driven by evolutionary concerns is it possible that an increased number of women will leave the country in search of a financially secure man?

As the researchers point out, there are also bound to be things that men do in response to recessions. Because fewer men are able to offer financial security, finding a way to signal that you’re one of those men has tremendous rewards. Could there be a “Create a Republican SuperPAC Effect” where men attempt to show they’re wealthy by raising money to attack progressive politicians? Only time will tell, but for now those who love the three pillars of American society — sex, the feeling of economic inadequacy, and consumerism — can rest easy knowing the Lipstick effect is alive and well.
Hill, S., Rodeheffer, C., Griskevicius, V., Durante, K., & White, A. (2012). Boosting Beauty in an Economic Decline: Mating, Spending, and the Lipstick Effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0028657

5 Responses to The Quest For the “Lipstick Effect”

  1. Pingback: The connection between bad economy and women cosmetics : PsyDir

  2. racheledini says:

    This is fascinating. And also intensely dispiriting…! What’s the logic? ‘If I’m on my way to living in a cardboard box, I might as well look good…?’

  3. Misaki says:

    Experiment: the beauty products are all prominently labeled “Made in China”.


  4. Pingback: They said/We said: A new study reports that women spend more on beauty during recessions | Fashion |

  5. Pingback: The Lipstick Effect: De ce n-a murit piaţa bunurilor de lux? | zoso blog

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