That guy smiling from behind the wheel of his shiny Porsche may indeed be trying to impress a woman with it, but he's probably only interested in a fling, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Researchers found that in much the way a peacock flashes his feathers to attract a mate, some men use conspicuous spending to attract women: The catch is that the guys doing the big spending to bait women are supposedly only looking for a short-term relationship.
How money plays into sex, dating and marriage is an often-studied topic. A report by Dr. Catherine Hakim released in January showed that women are choosing richer husbands, or "marrying up" more today than they did in the 1940s. And a controversial 2009 study found that while several factors affected a woman's reported enjoyment of sex, the most influential was her partner's income.
So a guy can grab a woman's attention with shiny, expensive objects? Yes, it seems, but the new study also suggests that he won't try to hold it for long. A woman might choose the guy with a Porsche for a date, but she doesn't necessarily view him as a better marriage partner than a guy driving a Honda Civic.
"When women considered him for a long-term relationship, owning the sports car held no advantage relative to owning an economy car," explained Daniel Beal, an assistant professor of psychology at Rice and a member of the research team. "People may feel that owning flashy things makes them more attractive as a relationship partner, but in truth, many men might be sending women the wrong message."
The women in the study took the flashy car to mean the man was looking for uncommitted sex.
Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University who has studied romantic love extensively, said studies have widely shown that women like men with resources: They have since the beginning of time because they need someone to help take care of their young.
Men with lots of fancy cars who live in the right part of town are sending an evolutionary message that they can provide. And while this study showed that the conspicuous spenders didn't have a long-term advantage, Fisher argued they weren't at a disadvantage either.
"The bottom line is when you take a look around the world, women -- if they can win over the Porsche guy -- they'd rather have the Porsche guy," Fisher said.
Just because women know the conspicuous spender is primarily looking for a fling, that doesn't mean they won't try to turn that fling into something more.
"They want the resources, so they'll think 'Maybe I can love him in the way that makes him stay long-term,'" Fisher explained.
A study Fisher helped conduct with Match.com found that a third of respondents reported having a one-night stand that turned into a long-term relationship. With those numbers in mind, he posited that women might take a chance on the Porsche guy. Just like men, women have dating strategies, and in this instance, the pay-off would be big.
"He had to really work to get that Porsche, and that's his bait, and she sees the bait," Fisher said. "She reels him in, and he thinks it's short term. She has sex with him, and he falls for her. Now her babies can ride around in a Porsche."