Shiny, swanky car boosts men’s appeal to women, but not women’s appeal to men

It’s a widely held, if much derided, belief that ownership of a prestige sports car can increase a man’s sex appeal to women. Indeed, there’s a scene in the American sit-com Friends in which Joey dons a ridiculous Porsche-branded costume of peak cap, gloves, jacket and trousers, so determined is he to convince female passers-by that he owns a fast, shiny car. Now Michael Dunn and Robert Searle have tested the shiny car effect scientifically, looking at the influence of apparent car ownership on both male and female perceived attractiveness.

Hundreds of passers-by in Cardiff city centre were asked to rate the attractiveness of a young man or woman portrayed in a photograph sitting in a car. Male participants all rated the same woman, and female participants all rated the same man. Crucially, half the participants saw the man or woman sat at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta whilst the other half saw the man or woman sat at the wheel of a Bentley Continental (worth a cool £75000, approximately, at the time of testing).

Pilot research had established that, against a blank background, the photographed man and woman were perceived as equally attractive by the opposite sex (both scoring approximately mid-way on an attractiveness scale) and also that male and female participants didn’t differ from each other in the aesthetic ratings they gave to the two models of car. The stand out message from the research proper, however, is that the man was rated as significantly more attractive when he was seen sat in the Bentley rather than the Fiesta, whereas the woman’s perceived attractiveness was unaffected by the car she happened to be sitting in.

This finding appears to support prior research showing that in cultures all round the world, heterosexual women are attracted to men with greater status and resources, whereas heterosexual men tend to be attracted to women who appear youthful and fertile.

‘It would appear that even though recent years have witnessed dramatic increases in female ownership of prestige luxury cars, such ownership does not enhance female attractiveness, as is the case with male attractiveness,’ the researchers said.

‘Also,’ they added, ‘the results contradict the “structural powerlessness” hypothesis, i.e. the belief that as economic differences diminish men and women will become more alike, as the rise in female economic fortune has not, it would appear, emancipated them from attraction to cues that are indices of wealth and status in males.’

ResearchBlogging.orgDunn, M., & Searle, R. (2010). Effect of manipulated prestige-car ownership on both sex attractiveness ratings British Journal of Psychology, 101 (1), 69-80 DOI: 10.1348/000712609X417319

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

6 thoughts on “Shiny, swanky car boosts men’s appeal to women, but not women’s appeal to men”

  1. Therefore, males will pay for that 'added' benefit of a prestige car and the carmakers' profit margins will be higher.

    If the 'attractiveness' value of a 2 – 3 year old prestige car in good condition remains comparable to a new car, the residual (trade-in) value of a prestige car, as a percent of original value, will be higher than for a non-prestige auto. Higher residual values lead to lower leasing costs versus buying, which will increase the number of potential male buyers in lower income groups. More male buyers will help maintain higher profit margins and higher residual values.

    Consistent with the study, common wisdom is that expensive cars maintain there trade-in value better than less expensive cars.

    Since leasing does not require as much income or wealth as buying and muddies the signal sent to women about an owner's richness, women should be less impressed by expensive cars that are widely leased versus purchased.

    Therefore, women should rank the attractiveness of males with prestige cars that have a high proportion of leasing less than the attractiveness of men with prestige cars that have a lower proportion of leasing.

    It would be an interesting follow-up to see if women do take corrective actions to prevent male deceit about false wealth signals.

  2. You're right, Milton, that would be a very interesting follow up study. However, I doubt that attraction is that cerebral in practice and there would probably be some dissonance in most women, if consciously entertained, between the idea of themselves as non-shallow and the idea of themselves judging men by their wealth.

  3. The female is attracted to the presumed rich successful male in an expensive car, but….

    perhaps the male subconscious doesn't 'believe' the female could have afforded the expensive car, and that she was bought and paid for by another male, along with the car?

  4. A female wants a man to look after her, protect her, and give her what she needs. When a man is rich, that can be done easily. It's not that she's money greedy! Likewise, a man wants a woman to be beautiful youthful and fertile for his pleasure.

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