A fashion spin on same-sex rivalry

When the mating game begins, a peacock unfolds its tail, a lion touts its mane, and a deer struts its antlers - but women reach for that little black dress. According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, humans are no exception to these nonconscious primal techniques, and ovulating women in particular buy more provocative clothing, especially upon encountering attractive, nearby female rivals.

Researchers hypothesized that a spike in hormones involved with fertility regulates women's tendencies toward fashion products that enhance appearance. They said this "dress to impress" intuition is driven less by an effort to court men and more by a desire to outdo local attractive women, women who pose as direct rivals in securing these men.

"In order to entice a desirable mate, a woman needs to assess the attractiveness of other women in her local environment to determine how eye-catching she needs to be to snare a good man," said authors Kristina M. Durante, Vladas Griskevicius, Sarah E. Hill, Carin Perilloux and Norman Li.

Researchers asked women to browse and choose items from an online retail website they designed specifically for the experiment, which featured both "sexy" and "relatively less sexy" clothing items. To ensure a proper categorization and distribution of the clothing, a separate sample of women rated the clothing items on a nine-point scale, from "not at all sexy" to "extremely sexy." Each woman in the original sample then browsed the website twice , once near ovulation and once while not ovulating.

The research consisted of three studies. First, researchers simply allowed the women to browse the website and choose ten items. Ovulating women went for sexier picks than non-ovulating women. Next, a group of women were shown photos of attractive women or men, or unattractive women or men, before browsing the retail website. Ovulation only affected the group of women primed with photos of attractive female rivals. To assess the importance of these rivals' location, a group of women in a third study were shown photos of attractive local women or distant women, or unattractive local women or distant women. Ovulation only played a part in women's consumer choices when the rivals were both attractive and local.

The findings have implications for marketers and retailers: "For about five to six days each month, normally ovulating women , constituting over a billion consumers , may be especially likely to purchase products and services that enhance physical appearance," the authors said.

And while ovulating women on the prowl might snag that little black dress when pressed by nearby female competition, researchers found that non-ovulating women shy away to more conservative garments when placed in the same situation.

"Because the potential evolutionary benefits of winning costly status competitions are lower when women are not ovulating," the authors wrote, "it is possible that the salience of female rivals leads non-ovulating women to distance themselves from direct competition."

References:

1. Durante, K.M., Griskevicius, V., Hill, S.E., Perilloux, C., & Li, N.P. (2010). Ovulation, female competition, and product choice: hormonal influences on consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(2),

2. Press release: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-08/uocp-mwp082410.php

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