Peacocking – What Kind of Message Are You Giving With Your Flashy Expensive Items?


The peacock is an interesting animal from an evolutionary perspective.  When you think of a peacock, the first thing that probably comes to mind is their tails and their extravagant displays.  The main function of these tails is to attract potential mates.  But from an evolutionary standpoint, these tails don’t make much sense otherwise.  They can attract predators and can even slow down a peacock from escaping.  But those with extensive plumage attract the most peahens because it shows they can survive even with the tail burden and are a valuable mate. 

Now if you see somebody pull up to your local coffee shop in a bright red Ferrari, chances are you’ll definitely turn your head to check it out.  Even though Ferrari’s aren’t the most practical cars, some people decide to spend the exorbitant amount of money.  By driving this flashy car, a person could be displaying their own “plumage,” showing spending that much on a car doesn’t have an effect on their own economic survival.  Is there a type of person that spends this way?  What message does it send to others?

Recent research was interested in this “conspicuous consumption,” in which people buy costly items to impress others and show they are wealthy or of high status.  A study by Sundie et al (2011) investigated many different aspects of conspicuous consumption.  First, the researchers found that only men who were interested in short-term encounters were likely to display this type of behavior, while men who were more motivated to find long-term relationships and women overall were not.

This finding can be explained in an evolutionary perspective.  Let’s go back to the peacock.  The peacock, as a species, has a low-investment mating strategy.  In other words, once a peacock has impregnated a peahen, his job is done.  The peacock doesn’t stick around to help raise the offspring.  People, on the other hand, can have either low-investment or high-investment mating strategies.  In this portion of their study, the researchers showed that men with low-investment mating strategies were more likely to “peacock” and purchase showy items to attract women.

But how is this peacocking behavior seen by women?  In the second portion of the study, the researchers investigated how this behavior would affect how desirable women found men to be.  They found when men had a flashy car, women would desire them more for a short-term relationship, but did not influence their feelings of a long-term relationship with them.  In other words, a man with a Ferrari would be more likely to get a date with a woman than a man driving a Honda, but they are just as likely to get a long-term relationship with her.

So before you men out there decide to pony up the dough for a new sleek sports car, think of the message you’re really sending.  Women in the study reported they believed men with a flashy car were more open to uncommitted sexual partnerships.  Given that men who are looking for short-term encounters are more likely to spend frivolously to attract potential mates, it seems that women know exactly what men are up to driving those flashy cars.

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