Monday, November 12, 2012

Gender, anxiety, and purchases

Some kinds of purchases provoke anxiety.  Many men hate to shop for clothes.  In general, men do not keep up on the latest fashions and don’t really have a sense of what will look good.  Even men who do know about fashion may be concerned about buying clothes, just because they know there is a stereotype out there that men are fashion-challenged.  Similarly, there is a stereotype that women don’t know much about cars.  As a result, women often experience a similar kind of anxiety when car shopping.

A paper in the August, 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Kyoungmi Lee, Hakkyun Kim, and Kathleen Vohs explored this kind of stereotype-induced anxiety.

Their studies focused on women.  They reasoned that women might often feel anxiety when faced with choices involving science and math because of the widespread (if false) stereotype that women are worse at science and math than men.  They suggested that in cases in which women had to make choices of products involving math or science, they might minimize their anxiety by trying to work with a female salesperson.  Working with a female salesperson would minimize the importance of gender in the interaction and thus would reduce the overall anxiety.

To test this possibility, one study asked men and women to choose whether they would want to do business with a financial planning company.  Everyone saw an ad for a company.  Some people saw an ad with mathematical formulas in it, while others saw an ad with no formulas.  The formulas were expected to increase the importance of math for the decision, which was expected to increase anxiety about the choice for the women in the study.  Finally, the financial advisors depicted in the ad were either men or women.

Men in this study were equally likely to be interested in doing business with this company regardless of whether there was math in the ad or whether men or women were shown as financial advisors.  The women did not care about the gender of the advisors when there was no math in the ad, but were much more likely to want to do business with females than with males when there was math in the ad.  The women also expressed more anxiety when shown the ad with the math in it than when shown the ad with no math.

If it really is anxiety that is affecting women’s decisions, then it ought to be possible to get rid of women’s preferences for a female salesperson by reducing their anxiety in some way.  In another study, women participants were asked to imagine that they were visiting a car dealer.  In the scenario, they were greeted either by a male or female salesperson.  They were asked to rate how likely they would be to buy from that car dealer.  Consistent with the previous study, women who just read this scenario indicated that they were more likely to purchase from this dealer if they had a female salesperson than if they had a male salesperson.

As a clever way of trying to decrease anxiety, half of the participants were presented with these scenarios in a packet of papers that had been covered in a vanilla scent.  Previous research suggests that the scent of vanilla is effective at helping to reduce anxiety.  The women who read the scenarios while smelling vanilla liked the car dealers equally well regardless of whether they had a male or female salesperson.

When shopping gets stressful, it is clear that you will try to find a way to make it less stressful. It is important to be mindful of what kinds of shopping situations are stressful for you, though, because the ways that you reduce stress may not be the ones that allow you to make the best choices.  Often, you might be tempted to make stressful choices as quickly as possible, even though spending a bit more time might allow you to make a better choice.  In those cases, a pleasant scent or some deep breaths might help to reduce the anxiety that goes with some choices.