Newswise — Times of economic recession may increase a woman’s desire to buy beauty products, according to a series of studies headed by Sarah E. Hill, assistant professor of social psychology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

Her research showed that women who were primed with news of the economic recession reported an increased interest in purchasing goods they believed could enhance physical attractiveness, including lipstick, perfume and designer jeans. The same subjects reported a decreased desire to purchase consumer goods that could not enhance attractiveness.

The beauty products industry has consistently enjoyed periods of sales growth during times of economic downturn, dating back to the Great Depression. Journalists have dubbed this anomaly the “lipstick effect.” Many have previously speculated that the lipstick effect stems from women reallocating their spending from costly indulgences to cheaper ones—an explanation that Hill’s research discredited.

“We found that the lipstick effect applies specifically to products that enhance beauty, even when those products are more expensive,” says Hill. “Recession cues increased women’s desire to buy high-end cosmetics and designer clothing, but not to buy budget-line beauty products, which were rated less effective at improving one’s appearance.”

Why all the focus on physical appearance? Hill’s research indicated that the lipstick effect is deeply rooted in women’s mating psychology.

“While economic recessions are a recent development in human history, fluctuations in prosperity and resource availability are not,” she explains. “Human ancestors regularly went through cycles of abundance and famine, each of which favors different reproductive strategies.”

Periods of resource scarcity favor more immediate reproduction, as this decreases the likelihood that one will perish before producing offspring. For women, periods of scarcity also decrease the availability of quality mates, as women’s mate preferences reliably prioritize resource access.

“This preference stems from the important role that mates’ resources have played in women’s reproductive success,” says Hill. “News of a recession may signal to women that financially secure men—those able to invest resources in rearing offspring—are becoming scarce.”

Resource scarcity makes finding a mate with access to resources a paramount concern, as the number of males in possession of resources dwindles. Women accordingly must put forth more effort into attracting a suitable mate by emphasizing qualities related to fertility, such as youth and physical attractiveness—a pursuit in which makeup can be useful.

Hill’s research demonstrated that the increased desire to purchase beauty products, designer clothing and accessories was fully mediated by a heightened preference for mates with resources. The studies also showed that the lipstick effect functioned independently of women’s own financial access.

“Women of both higher and lower economic status expresses an increased desire to buy luxury beauty products when primed with recession cues,” says Hill. “This suggests that an uncertain economic climate leads women to heighten mate attraction effort irrespective of their own resource need.”

Hill’s research will be published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” in August.

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Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (August 2012)