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.'
Dunn, 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