Men who buy flashy cars and other luxury items may only be interested in one thing from prospective mates (and it’s not a long term commitment). But according to a new study, this is not manipulation — it’s just an honest signal, since women pick up the message loud and clear.

The new research finds that "conspicuous spending" is often used as a signal in mate selection, much in the way that male peacocks use their impressive tail feathers to woo females. With peacocks, the ostentatious – and encumbering – male tail display says, "I’m strong and healthy enough to schlep this thing around and resist predators and disease." To the females, it means one thing: good genes. For humans, flashy items on males may carry a similar message.

Women do tend to rate males who possess luxury items as more attractive — but not for marriage, just for a date.

In a complex series of experiments, the researchers behind the current study showed that women do tend to rate males who possess luxury items as more attractive — but not for marriage, just for a date. "When women considered him for a long-term relationship, owning the sports car held no advantage relative to owning an economy car," said co-author Daniel Beal in a university news release.

The researchers also found, perhaps not surprisingly, that men who tended to favor more expensive items were more often interested in short term or no-commitment relationships. But importantly, women got the signal: they perceived that men who favored flashy items were, by and large, not interested in the long term.

"This research suggests that conspicuous products, such as Porsches, can serve the same function for some men that large and brilliant feathers serve for peacocks," said lead author Jill Sundie.

For men who think that purchasing expensive items makes them more attractive as a marriage prospect, Sundie disabuses them of this notion: "People may feel that owning flashy things makes them more attractive as a relationship partner, but in truth, many men might be sending women the wrong message."

So men, if you’re interested in a long term commitment, don’t go broke on a Porsche. A Civic will do.

Jill Sundie is a researcher at Rice University, and published her study in the April 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.