Post by Jessica S. Kruger, a University of Toledo Health Education doctoral student with a cognate in Psychology, who did the research with her husband, evolutionary social psychologist Dr. Daniel J. Kruger, a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan.
“ARE YOU ROLLING on dubs?” Not long ago, I only knew this as a tag line in a rap song.
Two years ago, we moved to a historic neighborhood in an urban area. As evolutionary researchers, we were fascinated by what we saw there. One thing we noticed was the high proportion of vehicles with large and shiny rims (wheels). There is even a store just a few blocks from where we live that sells these rims. After driving by so many times, I decided to stop in and investigate. I was stunned to learn how expensive they could be, and intrigued that we would often see very fancy vehicles parked in front of houses that were in various states of decay.
We understand these patterns through the framework of Life History Theory:
Life history theory … is a branch of evolutionary theory which predicts behavior based upon people’s [potential lifespans, vis a vis how stable or risky their environment is]. It suggests that as people believe they are likely to live longer, decisions related to certain milestones such as marriage, having babies, and divorce may be delayed in favor of other activities such as education. … Life history theory can help us understand how we make important decisions that affect our lives.
Some researchers describe life history as a continuum from slow to fast. This is because relatively “faster” species and individuals tend to reproduce earlier and more prolifically, but also tend to die earlier. In evolutionary terms, neither fast nor slow life histories are inherently good or bad. An individual’s life history is shaped in part by the environment in which it grows up. When conditions are unpredictable and the chance of early death is high, individuals seize opportunities when they can, before it is too late. If conditions are predictable and the chance of early death is low, individuals take a less risky, long-term approach.
Each individual has a limited amount of time and energy, so one has to make “trade-offs” in how much effort to invest in each aspect of life. One of these trade-offs is between mating effort (getting new sexual partners) and parenting effort (investing in offspring). For example, a male peacock has a big and beautiful tail. Charles Darwin was puzzled by peacock tails and wondered how they could have evolved, as they are cumbersome and could attract predators. He later realized that peacock tails did not evolve because they helped peacocks survive, but rather that this costly trait served as a signal of the male’s quality. The more brilliant the plumage, the more attractive it is to potential mates.
We concluded that the extravagant wheels we saw were a function of mating effort, a costly signal analogue to the peacock’s tail, used to gain status and attract partners. We decided to conduct a study to confirm this idea. We searched the Internet for before and after pictures of cars that had rim upgrades. We found suitable pictures of a Jeep Rubicon and a Chrysler 300. We predicted that people would rate a male owner of a car with upgraded rims as higher in mating effort, lower in parental effort, more interested in brief sexual affairs, and less interested in long-term committed relationships than men with stock vehicles.
The results from ratings of 339 college students generally confirmed our predictions. The patterns were stronger for male participants, and both cars seemed to be associated with a high mating effort (and lower parental effort, etc.) life history regardless of the wheels they had.
I am on the board of a grassroots non-profit inner-city gym for local youth. I was talking with people there about the project, and they were incredulous that we needed to do a study to figure this out; to them it was so obvious.
Rims can be thought of jewelry for your car and, in evolutionary terms, a display of resources to attract potential mates.
We are glad to shed more light on conspicuous consumption and explain an apparent paradox (why people in resource-scarce environment would spend so much on these products) with the strongest theoretical framework in the human sciences.
I like to get into my research.
This research was presented by Jessica Sloan Kruger at NEEPS 2015, the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology conference. Dates and info on NEEPS 2016 and other the 2016 ev psych (and related) conferences here.