The Psychology Behind the Lipstick Effect

What is the cost of beauty? Apparently not even an empty wallet can slow down the desired red pucker of a woman’s lips.

Although data from previous recessionary periods consistently demonstrate that times of economic turmoil generally force consumers to downsize on all sorts of spending — from groceries, to homes, to vacations (hence, coining the term “stay-cation”) — there is one consumer good that has fared unusually well in the midst of layoffs and home foreclosures: beauty products. For example, sales figures from one of the world’s biggest cosmetics companies — L’Oreal — showed a surprising growth of 5.3% in 2008, a year when the rest of the economy was suffering record declines in sales. The notion that women may spend relatively more money on beauty enhancing products during economic recessions has been dubbed by journalists as the lipstick effect.

Although the idea of the lipstick effect appears counterintuitive, this phenomenon is not a recent observation. The influence of diminished monetary status on women beautification behaviors is believed to have occurred even during the Great Depression, when sales of women’s cosmetic products boomed unexpectedly. To understand how and why economic recessions might influence women’s psychology and behavior, one research team recently presented five interconnected studies that provided novel insights into women’s mating psychology, consumer behavior, and the relationship between the two. These studies are described below.

Study 1 – The researchers used real-world data to examine the relationship between economic condition and consumer spending over the last 20 years. They found that fluctuating economic conditions, as indexed by unemployment, were related to consumer spending priorities. Higher unemployment was associated with decreased spending on products unrelated to appearance (e.g. furniture) and increased spending on appearance related products (e.g. cosmetics and clothing).

Study 2 – Men and women were instructed to indicate their desire for products that could or could not enhance attractiveness after being primed with economic recession or control cues.  It was found that exposure to recession cues decreased both men and women’s desire to purchase products unrelated to appearance; however, the same recession cues persistently increase women’s desire to purchase appearance related products.

Study 3 – The mediating mechanisms of the lipstick effect were tested. It was revealed that the psychological processes driving the lipstick effect were rooted in women’s mating psychology. The authors rationalized that because there are fewer men with access to resources during recessionary periods, women’s desire for a resourcefully wealthy mate increased in response to recession cues.

Study 4 – The model described in study 3 was supported by the results of study 4. Here, the influences of beauty product prices on the lipstick effect were tested. It was found that recession cues did not increase women’s desire for discount brand beauty products because they were perceived as being less effective at enhancing attractiveness to mates. These results detract from the previous hypothesis that that the lipstick effect reflects a general spending shift wherein women choose to buy inexpensive indulgences (e.g. $40 tube of lipstick) in the place of more expensive ones (e.g. $2500 luxury designer handbag). Instead, the findings suggest that the lipstick effect reflects a strategic spending shift towards products that women believe will make them more attractive to mates.

Study 5 – Finally, the type of women who were most likely to exhibit the lipstick effect were determined. It was found that when jeans, perfume, and high-heeled boots were advertised as serving a mate attraction function, economic recession cues increased women’s desirability for those products. On the contrary, when the same products were advertised serving a non-mating function, the lipstick effect was suppressed. Thus, the authors concluded that economic recessions are most likely to spur yearning for beauty products in women who are intentionally trying to attract a relationship partner.

Despite quick judgments garnered from the casual observer that splurges on beauty products during recessionary periods are rather senseless, these findings suggest that the shift in women’s spending may actually reflect a deeper, strategic, and adaptive rationality. As described by the authors, “women’s psychologies may have been shaped to respond to economic resource scarcity by allocating more effort into securing a financially secure mate in an environment where such mates are scarce”. Whether absurdly moronic or brilliantly rooted through ancestral psychology, one thing remains true: the lipstick effect continues to persist throughout the ages, its name founded on a product creation that epitomizes the core of the phenomenon—the seductive attraction of ruby red lips.


Hill SE, Rodeheffer CD, Griskevicius V, Durante K, & White AE (2012). Boosting beauty in an economic decline: Mating, spending, and the lipstick effect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 103 (2), 275-91 PMID: 22642483

Koehn, NF. Estee Lauder and the market for prestige cosmetics. Harvard Business School Cases. 2001 Feb;801-362, 1-44.

Image via Seprimor / Shutterstock.

Amy Wong, MS

Amy Wong, MS, is a medical writer and conducts traumatic brain injury research in a large academic institution. She holds a Master’s of Science from the University of Toronto under the department of Pharmacology. Her studies pertained to the selective field of neuropsychopharmacology examining the biological implications of post-stroke depression.
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