Body Ornamentation & Costly Signalling


Carmen, R. A., Guitar, A. E., & Dillon, H. M. (2012). Ultimate answers to proximate questions: The evolutionary motivations behind tattoos and body piercings in popular culture. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 134-143 

Abstract: Numerous studies have found that piercing and tattooing the body is an increasingly prevalent trend in modern popular culture; however, this is not only a modern practice. Evidence of various forms of body ornamentation has been found in human societies dating back thousands of years. Although prior research has focused on the potential relationships between various personality traits and the likelihood of piercing or tattooing the body, few have approached this topic from an evolutionary perspective. For instance, the general motivations for getting tattoos and piercings have tended to fall into the same three categories for hundreds of years: (a) a symbol of an important past event, love, or friendship, (b) group membership, and/or (c) a marker of individuality. We argue that these motivations are simply proximate behaviors for an ultimate evolutionary reason: the perpetuation of one's genes. In this article, we propose two new theories about the origins of body ornamentation. First, in our “human canvas” hypothesis, we propose a link between body ornamentation and the human species' historical use of symbolic thought. Second, in our “upping the ante” hypothesis, we suggest that the steady rise in popularity of tattooing and piercing in Western culture has come about due to larger population densities and advancements in healthcare, which has led individuals to seek new and unique displays of fitness (i.e., body ornamentation). We then conclude with proximate examples in popular culture to display the proposed ultimate evolutionary reasoning behind body ornamentation.