Be Careful of Guys with Flashy Cash Interview with:

Daniel J. Kruger Ph.D. Research Investigator, Population Studies Center University of Michigan 

Dr. Kruger

Daniel J. Kruger Ph.D.
Research Investigator, Population Studies Center
University of Michigan What is the background for this study?

Response: Thorstein Veblen coined the terms “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous leisure” to describe the wasteful habits of the upper classes in amassing and displaying expensive goods that did not have inherent practical benefits and devoting time to pursuits such as sports and fine arts. The purpose of these socially conspicuous displays and behaviors was to advertise one’s membership in the upper, leisure class, as only the very wealthy could afford them. Veblen was inspired in part by Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. Darwin himself was greatly puzzled by what he considered wasteful investments of energy in elaborate physiological displays. He saw these features as the greatest threat to his theory of natural selection. Why would something like the peacock’s tail feathers evolve, as they actually threatened survival because of their impediment to foraging and avoiding predators? Darwin was so troubled by this dilemma that the sight of a peacock’s tail feather would make him feel sick. Darwin later realized that these features provided a reproductive advantage, leading to his theory of sexual selection, including the processes of inter-sexual selection and intra-sexual competition. What are the main findings?

Response: Evolutionary Psychologists make a direct analogy between men’s displays of luxury goods and the grand display of the peacock’s tail feathers. Men purchase and display luxury consumer goods to signal their economic power. Such resource displays enhance their attractiveness to potential reproductive partners because they predict resource investment in offspring. Paternal investment, the resources and care provided by fathers, is very important for enabling children to survive and thrive. However, there is a fundamental challenge to this analogy and model. The peacock’s tail feathers are a signal of the bird’s genetic qualities, rather than investment of resources in or caretaking offspring by the male bird. Peacocks do not provide any paternal care, instead they have metatarsal spurs on their legs that they use as weapons in territorial fights with other males.

The feathers are an example of secondary sex characteristics, features that appear in animals at sexual maturity but are not directly part of the reproductive system. These ornaments and armaments facilitate intra-sexual mating competition. They enable quick and reliable assessments of physiological quality, physical strength, social status, dominance, and aggressiveness by competitors and potential reproductive partners. Luxury displays that mimic the properties of secondary sex characteristics (exaggerated size, elaborate coloration, etc.) may function in the same way as the secondary sex characteristics themselves, investment in the competition for mates (mating effort), which is inversely related to investments in offspring (parenting effort).

A recent series of studies tested predictions derived from this phenotypic mimicry hypothesis in carefully controlled experiments. Participants viewed polo style shirts with small and large versions of a luxury clothing brand logo in randomized order. In some of the studies, participants predicted the characteristics of the man who owned each shirt. In another, male participants were asked which shirt they would wear in specific social contexts and female participants were asked which shirt they thought men would be more likely to wear. Men owning the large logo shirts were rated higher on mating effort, lower on parental investment, higher on interest in brief sexual affairs, lower on interest in long-term committed romantic relationships, higher in attractiveness to women for brief sexual affairs, lower in attractiveness to women for long-term committed relationships, and higher in developmental environment unpredictability compared to men owning shirts displaying a smaller logo. This pattern is completely consistent with the life history-based model. In another study, men were most likely to wear the large logo shirt when then competing for social dominance or attempting to attract a sexual partner. They were least likely to wear the large logo shirt when meeting their potential in-laws or applying for a job. Such results indicate the strategic use of luxury displays to signal features consistent with social goals. What should readers take away from your report? 

Response: Be careful of guys with flashy cash, that cash may not last. Men may spend what they have to show off, rather than saving money for the future. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work? 

Response: This was a carefully controlled experiment using one set of stimuli. Future research can use a broader range of materials and answer a broad range of questions related to the hypothesis. For example, what is the relationship between the luxury products’ characteristics and the secondary sex characteristics of the men themselves? Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: More studies are in the works, the results so far confirm the pattern in the current study and provide additional support for the hypothesis. 


Phenotypic Mimicry Distinguishes Cues of Mating Competition From Paternal Investment in Men’s Conspicuous Consumption

Daniel J. Kruger
First Published 15 Apr 2021.

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Apr 19, 2021 @ 7:27 pm


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