The lipstick effect


Jason Collins


July 1, 2012

Sarah Hill has posted at Scientific American on a new paper (pdf) that she (and colleagues) has written on the lipstick effect. The lipstick effect is a phenomena where sales of beauty products increase in times of recession, in contrast to the reduction in purchases for most other goods. The authors suggest that this reflects the desire of women to reproduce more quickly, and competition between women for access to the relatively scarcer resource-rich men. Part of the abstract reads:

Findings revealed that recessionary cues—whether naturally occurring or experimentally primed—decreased desire for most products (e.g., electronics, household items). However, these cues consistently increased women’s desire for products that increase attractiveness to mates—the first experimental demonstration of the lipstick effect. Additional studies show that this effect is driven by women’s desire to attract mates with resources and depends on the perceived mate attraction function served by these products.

The most interesting element of this paper is the argument that the lipstick effect is not driven solely by resource needs. One of the five studies reported in the paper directly addressed this point:

The second goal of Study 4 was to rule out an alternative hypothesis derived from social roles theory (see Eagly & Wood, 1999)—specifically, that the lipstick effect may reflect women’s greater resource need in a recession. On this view, because resources tend to be controlled by men, economic recessions should prompt women to attract wealthy mates specifically as a means to obtaining these rarified resources. In contrast, our evolutionary model predicts that economic resource scarcity should lead women to invest more effort in mate attraction effort because such conditions heighten reproductive goal immediacy and signal diminished access to high-quality mates, both of which prompt greater mate attraction efforts. …

From a social roles perspective, which would predict that the lipstick effect reflects women’s increased resource needs in a recession, women’s own resource access (e.g., her socioeconomic status [SES]) should be the driver of the lipstick effect. That is, the effect should be driven primarily by lower SES women, whose resource need is greatest. In contrast, our evolutionary model predicts that uncertain economic climates should lead women to heighten mate attraction effort—and to do so irrespective of their own resource need.

Study 4 supported the authors’ hypothesis:

[C]onsistent with our model based on theories in evolutionary psychology, a robust lipstick effect was found in women across levels of SES. … Furthermore, that each of our studies revealed evidence of a robust lipstick effect, despite the fact that many of the women in our sample came from backgrounds implying low resource need, indicates additional evidence that the lipstick effect does not emerge exclusively in response to objective resource need. These results provide  support for the idea that social roles, by themselves, are unlikely to provide a complete explanation for the lipstick effect.

I would be interested in examining this from a slightly different angle, focusing on the uncertainty associated with recessions and not the low resource availability that accompanies them. If we think of an r/K selection framework, unstable environments tend to result in strategies of rapid reproduction when possible, whereas stable but resource constrained environments lead to greater investment in quality of offspring. The lipstick effect is a response to the uncertainty. If these experiments were run with women with children who must face a quality-quality trade-off, and not the young, college attending women used in the experiments in this paper, we could  examine this point further.