A recent study published in Nature suggests that the hormone testosterone is responsible for men wanting luxury watches. I’ve discussed the psychology of buying luxury watches at length in the past and have talked about the function of “status” (versus utility) in purchase decisions. Now we have a better understanding of what actually creates this desire for status. This study not only reinforces my previous theory that “status-seeking” is an important factor for many people in making a watch purchase decision, but introduces an interesting twist. That twist is the inverse relationship between wanting a tool/utilitarian/durable watch and wanting a luxury/status/wasteful watch.

The study didn’t focus on just luxury watches, but it certainly featured them. The question the researchers were trying to ask is what role testosterone had in men wanting to buy status watches – also sometimes known as Veblen goods. I liked the term the researchers used which was “positional good” to describe an item like an luxury watch whose primary purpose is to increase the social position of the owner/wearer. Social position increases are linked to a series of benefits for the person in question including (according to the research article) more access to resources, increased mate selection, reduced stress, and more social influence. Thus, there are distinct evolutionary benefits for “positional consumption.”

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An interesting topic that the study also addresses is how expensive watches can lead to an increase in social status. The study makes it a point to separate high quality and high utility watches from ones which merely increase status. In fact, choosing from one of these three categories was an integral part of the test. One might theorize that durable tool watches worn by someone might lead to the conclusion that they are active, in good health, and physically powerful. Interesting enough, it was the placebo group of participants who gravitated more toward practical versus wasteful watches.

Veblen (among others) discussed that the ability to waste resources on a purchase is a direct symbol of the purchaser’s perceived level of wealth. The idea being that if you have the ability (and leisure) to waste money on something, you must have a lot of extra resources and this increases status in the area of perceived wealth. Even though practical watches can suggest physical or intellectual power in the wearer, they are not found to increase status. Why? Because according to the study such items are not able to readily separate the “haves” from the “have-nots.” Once again, the study found that increasing testosterone had an immediate and direct effect on wanting status symbols. At the same time it resulted in a decreased desire for quality/powerful watches.

Image credit: nature.com & G. Nave et. al.

What was the exact role of testosterone in the study? A pool of 243 male participants in a double-blind study were asked to take a pill prior to being asked a series of consumer preference questions about four hours later. Some of those participants took a dose of testosterone and others took a placebo pill. I find it interesting that with just one dose of testosterone the researches found such a marked difference in preferences for status symbols. The placebo group generally preferred “quality” or “power” watches over “status” watches. The testosterone-given group had the exact opposite result – markedly preferring status watches to the others.

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The above diagram from the study includes captions that indicate how the research team described these various types of watches. I think they did an admirable job in articulating the differences between these timepiece categories. It is important to note that this study is just one layer of a larger story and only measured consumer preferences and not actual buying habits. Also, it doesn’t indicate how purchase preferences in individuals act over time when not given extra testosterone doses. It is unclear whether a man with normally “high” levels (comparatively speaking) will always prefer status symbol watches over others, or if this only occurs when that person is given an extra dosage of testosterone in excess of what their body naturally produces. In any event, the study seems to make a very good case that the hormone testosterone is directly responsible for not only male purchasing habits, but also the desire for status symbols such as luxury watches.

What can marketers in the watch industry do with this information? I think the most telling thing is how men with different lifestyles will prefer different types of watches. Certain types of activities such as exercise are known to increase testosterone. That might very well mean that men with “testosterone-rich” lifestyles are the perfect targets for status watch marketing. Alternatively, “power” and “quality” watches might be better marketed to men with less testosterone-intensive lifestyles. I am not sure how those lifestyles are separated, but given my understanding about how watch tastes really differ, I can easily say that certain groups of watch buying men certainly seem to want status symbols more than others. The interesting part is that this desire is often not directly associated with disposable income.

More interesting is how this information can be used to prepare what I call “suitable purchasing environments.” If positional good seeking is directly related to an increase in testosterone, why not have a prospective buyer engage in a testosterone-releasing activity a few hours prior to being faced with the option to purchase a product? The logic here is that when a man is experiencing a higher level of testosterone, he will not only be more interested in status-seeking, but also have a stronger desire to spend more money (i.e. a form of “wasteful” position spending) at the same time. This could be the perfect recipe to help sell status watches while creating more meaningful engagement with like-minded consumers.

I spend a lot of time thinking about why I buy the things I do and would like to think that I am mostly logical and practical in my purchases. Clearly that is not always the case if I am so very interested in high-end timepieces. Consumers have a remarkable ability to justify their purchases no matter what the core reason for buying them is. Much of the time consumers actually engage in a form of “self delusion” in an attempt to socially-rationalize what is actually a very simple reason such as “I wanted to get it because I thought it would make me look more attractive to women.” Appreciating the role of testosterone in luxury good desire-formation in men is a helpful tool when understanding our own purchase decisions and those of others.

Nod to Vlad at The Verge

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