Public Release:  Can thinking about shopping change the route you take?

Study finds men and women are affected differently by certain stimuli

University of Chicago Press Journals

Prior research has shown that exposure to business-related objects makes people act more competitively, even though they do not realize it. A fascinating new study by researchers at Stanford extends this research by investigating how different consumers are affected by the same stimuli. The study reveals significant differences between the way men and women subconsciously react after exposure to certain objects.

"Across two experiments, we demonstrated strong differences in choice behaviors resulting from the same prime," write S. Christian Wheeler and Jonah Berger (Stanford University). "As a result, the same stimulus can lead to divergent behaviors among identifiable groups that occur without their intention or awareness."

In the first experiment, the researchers examined how clothes shopping influences subsequent choices. They found that men who were exposed to the idea of shopping for a new wardrobe became much more focused on the end result in a subsequent (ostensibly unrelated) task of plotting a route for a cross-country trip, tending to choose the most direct route. In contrast, women exposed to clothes shopping were far more willing to take the scenic route.

As the researchers explain: "These findings are consistent with the pretested personal associations men and women generally have with clothes shopping and support the account that the primes affected behavior by activating their different personal associations."

They continue: "Many men tend to be "purpose driven" when clothes shopping (they shop for specific items and only when they are needed), whereas many women tend to be "possibility driven" (they browse and shop to "see what's out there")."

In the second experiment, Wheeler and Berger examined how thinking about attending a party could influence the choices of extroverts and introverts. They found that having to think about attending a party made introverts much more likely to choose "low-arousal items" in subsequent decisions (e.g., a comfort food cookbook vs. a spicy food cookbook, or a coupon for take-out vs. dine-in), whereas it had no effect on the choices of extroverts.

"The present research shows that a single prime is capable of generating diverse, and sometimes opposite, effects on consumer choice, depending on the specific personal associations people have with the prime," the researchers write. "Considering the diversity of behaviors that can result from exposure to a single stimulus suggests not only the importance of nonconscious influences on consumer behavior, but also the necessity of accounting for diversity across consumers."

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S. Christian Wheeler and Jonah Berger, "When the Same Prime Leads to Different Effects." Journal of Consumer Research: October 2007.

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