Clothes may make the man, but it is the label that really counts
Mar 31st 2011 | from the print edition
Rob Nelissen and Marijn Meijers of Tilburg University in the Netherlands examined people’s reactions to experimental stooges who were wearing clothes made by Lacoste and Tommy Hilfiger, two well-known brands that sell what they are pleased to refer to as designer clothing. As the two researchers show in a paper about to be published in Evolution and Human Behavior, such clothes do bring the benefits promised: co-operation from others, job recommendations and even the ability to collect more money when soliciting for charity. But they work only when the origin of the clothes in question is obvious.
In the first experiment, volunteers were shown pictures of a man wearing a polo shirt. The photo was digitally altered to include no logo, a designer logo (Lacoste or Hilfiger) or a logo generally regarded as non-luxury, Slazenger. When the designer logo appeared, the man in the picture was rated as of higher status (3.5 for Lacoste and 3.47 for Hilfiger, on a five-point scale, compared with 2.91 for no logo and 2.84 for Slazenger), and wealthier (3.4 and 3.94 versus 2.78 and 2.8, respectively).
To see if this perception had an effect on actual behaviour, the researchers did a number of other experiments. For instance, one of their female assistants asked people in a shopping mall to stop and answer survey questions. One day she wore a sweater with a designer logo; the next, an identical sweater with no logo. Some 52% of people agreed to take the survey when faced with the Tommy Hilfiger label, compared with only 13% who saw no logo.
In another experiment, volunteers watched one of two videos of the same man being interviewed for a job. In one, his shirt had a logo; in the other, it did not. The logo led observers to rate the man as more suitable for the job, and even earned him a 9% higher salary recommendation.
Charitable impulses were affected, too. When two of the team’s women went collecting for charity on four consecutive evenings, switching between designer and non-designer shirts, they found that wearing shirts with logos brought in nearly twice as much—an average per answered door of 34 euro cents (48 American ones) compared with 19 euro cents when logo-less. It seems, then, that labels count. The question is, why?
The answer, Dr Nelissen and Dr Meijers suspect, is the same as why the peacock with the best tail gets all the girls. People react to designer labels as signals of underlying quality. Only the best can afford them. To test that idea, they checked how people responded to a logo they knew had cost the wearer nothing. To do this, they asked their volunteers to play a social-dilemma game, in which both sides can benefit from co-operating, but only at the risk of being taken advantage of.
Each volunteer was given €2 in 10 cent coins and told he (or she) could transfer as much as desired to an unseen partner, and that any amount transferred would be doubled. If both partners transferred all of their money, each would end up with €4. But because there was no guarantee that the unseen partner would give back any money at all, players tended to hedge their bets, and transfer only some money.
When shown a picture of their purported partner wearing a designer shirt, volunteers transferred 36% more than when the same person was shown with no logo (95 cents, as opposed to 70 cents). But when told that the partner was wearing a shirt given by the experimenters, the logo had no effect on transfers. The shirt no longer represented an honest signal.
This study confirms a wider phenomenon. A work of art’s value, for example, can change radically, depending on who is believed to have created it, even though the artwork itself is unchanged. And people will willingly buy counterfeit goods, knowing they are knock-offs, if they bear the right label. What is interesting is that the label is so persuasive. In the case of the peacock, the tail works precisely because it cannot be faked. An unhealthy bird’s feathers will never sparkle. But humans often fail to see beyond the superficial. For humans, then, the status-assessment mechanism is going wrong.
Presumably what is happening is that a mechanism which evolved to assess biology cannot easily cope with artefacts. If the only thing you have to assess is the quality of a tail, evolution will tend to make you quite good at it. Artefacts, though, are so variable that mental shortcuts are likely to be involved. If everyone agrees something has high status, then it does. But that agreement often transfers the status from the thing to the label. Maybe a further million years or so of evolution will eliminate this failing. In the meantime, marketers can open another bottle of champagne.
from the print edition | Science and Technology