It's a story as old as the hills: "In modern human cultures where social hierarchies are ubiquitous, people typically signal their hierarchical position through consumption of positional goods — goods that convey one’s social position, such as luxury products," explains a study published Tuesday in Nature.
The new study sheds light on why men in particular may have such extravagant preferences: testosterone.
In the study, called “Single-dose testosterone administration increases men’s preference for status goods,” researchers measured men’s desire for status brands and products, like expensive jeans or watches, and how that desire might be influenced by increased testosterone.
The experiment revealed that administering testosterone increases men’s preference for status brands, compared with brands of similar perceived quality but lower perceived status. It also found that testosterone increases positive attitudes toward goods when they are described as “status-enhancing” but not when they are described as “power-enhancing” or high quality.
“Our results provide novel causal evidence for the biological roots of men’s preferences for status, bridging decades of animal behavioral studies with contemporary consumer research,” the study says.
Other research has shown that in certain contexts, like during competitions or in the presence of an attractive mate, testosterone spikes, and that testosterone increases motivation to promote a person's status. There's also the widely known idea of "conspicuous consumption," which theorizes that certain luxurious expenditures have no other meaningful purpose than to build social status.
Based on all that, the study's authors, led by G. Nave of marketing department of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, hypothesized that "elevated T [testosterone] levels would cause men to exhibit stronger preference toward goods that promote their social rank," like pricey watches.
For the study, 243 men ages 18 to 55 had either a testosterone or placebo topical gel applied, and then were asked to complete two tasks. First, they were shown pairs of apparel brands that were associated with different social ranks (Calvin Klein versus Levi’s, for example), and were asked which one they preferred.
Then, researchers measured their attitudes toward products that were positioned as either “status-enhancing,” “power-enhancing” or “high in quality.” So, for example, an identical watch would be described through three different ads that emphasized either high quality (like the watch’s sharp precision or comfort and its symbolism of reliability), its power (the watch’s indestructibility and symbolism of power and athletic excellence) or status (prestige and luxury of the watch and the way of life it symbolizes).
The researchers found that men given the testosterone showed greater preference for the brands that were linked to high social status, as well as increased positive attitudes toward the things that were positioned as status-enhancing, but not power-enhancing or high quality.
Of course, as the study acknowledges, men aren't the only ones with such purchasing patterns.
"[W]omen also engage in conspicuous consumption, and preliminary evidence suggests that biological factors (including hormones that relate to the menstrual cycle) are involved," the study said, citing multiple other studies. "As there is evidence that T [testosterone] promotes status-related behaviors in females further research should explore whether the effects of T [testosterone] on consumer preferences are generalizable to females, while taking into account that which brands and goods are status-enhancing is likely to differ across sexes."
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