Sexually dimorphic behaviour in human shopping

You know, I was perfectly happy to believe that anecdotes and rumours around the differential shopping habits of different human sexes had about as much foundation in fact as…as…(he casts around frantically for a non-offensive analogy)…oh, the myth that walking under ladders brings bad luck.  Even if I perpetuated said myth in my much-vilified recent Nature offering – because it helped the story, and fit with my own admittedly non-rigorous observations.

I was also recently told in no uncertain terms and at some length, by a number of very grim folk, that this was indeed a myth, and a sexist one to boot.

Being a scientist, however, I have been trained to demand evidence, to either support or disprove a hypothesis.

And it appears that it exists…now, while the  credibility of the journal has been doubted in a blog to which I really don’t feel like linking, it remains a fact that the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology exists, that it appears to be a peer-reviewed academic journal, that it garners citations from other journals – and that it published an article entitled “Evolved foraging psychology underlies sex differences in shopping experiences and behaviors“, by Daniel Kruger of the School of Public Health, University of Michigan, and Dreyson Byker, of  Literature, Science, and the Arts, University of Michigan.  In Volume 3, Issue 4, of December 2009 – a special issue reporting “Proceedings of the Third Annual Meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society”.

So: a reasonably respectable gathering, then, of respected academics, reporting academic work?  One has to assume so – and that this paper is in good standing, otherwise it would never have been published?  Again, a reasonable assumption – so to quote from said article could possibly come under the heading of scientific reportage, rather than sexist assumptions based only on gender bias?  If the chain of logic holds, then what I will write now cannot be held as evidence of my innate gender bias – can it?

From the abstract:

“Compared to men, women relied more on object oriented navigation strategies and scored higher on skills and behaviors associated with gathering, the degree to which shopping is seen as recreational, the degree to which shopping is a social activity, and the tendency to see new locations as opportunities for shopping. Men scored higher on skills and behaviors thought to be associated with hunting. Most effect sizes were moderate or strong. These results suggest that shopping experiences and behaviors are influenced by sexually divergent adaptations for gathering and hunting.” [my emphasis]

The paper is in fact quite detailed for a conference presentation – it runs to 15 pages – and reports experiments done using students:

“Undergraduate students (N = 467, 298 females and 169 males) at two large Mid- Western American public universities and who were enrolled in introductory psychology classes participated in an institutionally approved on-line survey at their convenience.”

Right: so it went through an Ethics Committee, then?  Evidently – it being a large, respectable US university, and all.

And they found that…

“…there is evidence that women’s role as gatherers continues to exist even though the environment and the objects being gathered have changed with respect to our ancestral environment. Also as predicted, men scored higher on skills and behaviors associated with hunting. Thus, even though the prey is now an expensive home theatre system, men are still applying the skills that were developed to obtain meat in a hunter-gatherer environment.” [my emphases][and pretty much what I said][only more learned]

Oh, one could claim that this is an isolated study – they are mavericks – their results are not supported by peer research…except that they’re not alone.

I give you “‘Men Buy, Women Shop’: The Sexes Have Different Priorities When Walking Down the Aisles” – from “researchers at Wharton’s Jay H. Baker Retail Initiative and the Verde Group, a Toronto consulting firm”.

From the article:

“Women tend to be more invested in the shopping experience on many dimensions,” says Robert Price, chief marketing officer at CVS Caremark and a member of the Baker advisory board. “Men want to go to Sears, buy a specific tool and get out.”


“Gender… is one of the easier customer attributes to address in a strategic fashion. Truly sophisticated marketers could get into attempting to differentiate services by gender and age or between professional women and those who manage households full-time. “

So you see, it’s not just me, being sexist.  Is it?  One peer-reviewed article, which has not been refuted in the peer-reviewed literature as far as I can see, and a study that was undoubtedly commissioned for large $$, out in the open, say the same as I did, in a story.

Bear in mind, I HAVE NOT STATED, ANYWHERE, THAT THE ABOVE IS MY FIRM BELIEF – except in a story, in order to set the scene for what followed.

Which makes this trackback, which I consigned to stray-electron-space but doubtless exists out there in the blogosphere somewhere, just another symptom of the “he’s a sexist bastard and I’ll defend that to his death” school of scientific commentary:

“…now Ed Rybicki does believe the shit he wrote.  In his most recent blog post he cites REAL SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE of womanspace…”

This is in marked contrast to the comments which I HAVE allowed, you will notice, which are far more in tune with civilised discourse.

But – to quote the godawful TV adverts spawned on us by US marketting channels – there’s more!  I read somewhere out there in Hatespace that one commenter would like to see figures on what online shopping demographics look like – presumably, because while gender (or sex) might affect physical shopping, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

As in – the actual animal.  Not to be construed as a derogatory comment on any kind of person.  From a joke.  A very mild one.

SO here we have – an actual study, on online shopping habits!  Quoting from this online article, which dealt with the Kruger / Byker paper discussed above:

“The hunter vs forager line comes up again in another interesting finding: men outspend women when it comes to online purchases. Like hunters, more men shop online and they love the quick efficient nature of the Internet which allows them to go in for the kill.”

The study was commissioned by PayPal, meaning again, big $$$ are involved.  One apposite quote from the UK Guardian article:

“…the report also revealed that women are slightly more adept than men at shopping around for cheaper products. More women than men used comparison sites when buying financial services, and more women researched an item “offline” before going online to make a purchase.”

I note that the last two reports are serious pieces of work, researched in order that serious companies can figure out where to put serious money in terms of marketting and sales strategies – and then reported in very sober publications, as being fact.

So where does that leave my story, in terms of being a hateful piece of sexism too vile to be published anywhere, but especially in Nature?  I have explained elsewhere how certain assumptions and presumptions about how and why it was that I could put a woman in the kitchen, make the men idle, and then have men being too hapless to find knickers, are just that – presumptions, and completely uninformed ones at that.  The next basis for vituperative criticism was that I blithely assumed for the sake of the story that there are differences between the human sexes in terms of shopping behaviour – which would seem to have at least some basis in fact, for both physical and online shopping.

Now I am not going to argue about whether these are in fact innate or learned differences, or whether they are reflected in gender bias, or anything else – the fact is that studies that observe human behaviour have thrown up differences in shopping behaviour linked to sex.  Or is it gender?

Which removes another of the planks used to beat me with, as far as I am concerned.

Right, so what’s left?  Oh, that trifling matter of women having supernatural or superhuman powers that allow them to universe-hop in search of good stuff.

Folks – it’s just a story.  And if I want to believe the women in my life are superhuman, I will.  Thank you.

(See, Hatespace, you should have waited till I finished before leaping to conclusions)


About Ed Rybicki

Ed is a 60-ish virologist and biotechnologist, formerly a Zambian and presently a South African. He is into family, virology, biotechnology, science in general, science fiction in particular, photography, red wine, wearing loud shirts, 70s rock, blues and smooth jazz...and telling stories. Sometimes, interesting ones. And writing for his own amusement.
This entry was posted in Personal stories and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Sexually dimorphic behaviour in human shopping

  1. I thought we were done with this..

    It’s not my area of expertise, but I suspect you can find an infinitely larger and more compelling body of peer-reviewed literature showing the negative effects of gender stereotyping on the success of women in science.

    Here’s one for example:

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      Ummmm…Michael…I’m not discussing “the negative effects of gender stereotyping on the success of women in science”. I’m sure there is such a phenomenon; I know people close to me have suffered because of it; I’m not arguing (anywhere, ever) that it does not exist.
      And I’m sorry if my story has been taken as being something that could strengthen such negative stereotyping – but recall that it IS a story, not an opinion piece.

  2. Nick B says:

    Michael Eisen: “showing the negative effects of gender stereotyping on the success of women in science.”

    Which has nothing to do with the claim. There are on-average differences between the sexes, which apparently does have some evidence beyond the obvious (e.g. women can get pregnant, men can’t). Whether it is mainly cultural or biological, stating that they don’t exist is to outright deny reality.

    If Group A has a response of 1.5 with a standard deviation of 0.5, and Group B has a response of 2.0 with the same standard deviation, and statistical analysis tells us that these are definitely representing different populations, am I wrong to talk about Group A and Group B as distinct populations?

    Clearly not. The problem is in applying population averages (assumed or real, though hopefully the “assumed” category can be reduced) to individuals within the populations, which we all do to one degree or another, consciously or subconsciously.

    So Michael, is the answer really to not talk about population differences? Or can we do a better job of understanding, and making others understand, the variation between populations and individuals? Or is there a better way for us to talk about population differences that reinforces the distinction from individuals?

    • You can talk about population differences if it floats your boat, but it’s almost always an uninteresting waste of time.

      I’m not going to rehash why population differences, whether they exist or not, are useless, except to point out, once again, that in life we interact with individuals, not populations, and population differences rarely tell us anything useful about individuals. Coupled with the long history of people using population differences (usually false ones) as the basis for partitioning individuals and ill-treating one of the groups, it’s better just to not go there. And in my experience, when people DO go there, they’re either being lazy or up to no good.

      In the end this is precisely the problem with Ed’s piece. It explicitly conflated population differences and individual differences. It said, in essence, that ALL women have some special ability to shop that sets them apart from ALL men. And, by doing so it reified the poisonous notion that every woman is somehow immutably distinct from every man. That it did so graced with the imprimatur of one of the major voices of authority in the field made this all the more dangerous.

      Ed could have written about how he and his friend had noted that they sucked at shopping and their wives didn’t, and fantasized about how these two people they were married to had some kind of magical power. But he didn’t – he had to generalize from two women to all women. And this is where he went astray. Had he not done that, I don’t think anyone would have cared. But then Henry Gee and Nature probably wouldn’t have either – and this is why people are so pissed.

      • Nick B says:

        Of course you can’t use population differences to say anything about particular individuals. No one here is claiming you can.

        “Coupled with the long history of people using population differences (usually false ones) as the basis for partitioning individuals and ill-treating one of the groups, it’s better just to not go there.”

        So I guess we should tell every human study that we can’t class anyone–not by sex, or age, or socioeconomic status, or occupation. Because clearly, there are no informative factors in grouping people in these ways and, therefore all prior results that did this should simply be discarded. And even though there are reasons to believe that there are likely to be more substantial biological differences between genders than any other division between humans (which would differ more in exposures or unrelated ancestral genetic variations), we should just ignore them simply because someone might misinterpret or misuse the results.

        As far as the story, you are missing (deliberately or otherwise) that in this parallel world of the story, it did in fact turn out that there was an explicit difference. It was told from the point of view of after the grand discovery. There was no conflation, it simply *was*. And you don’t know that it was all women which do it, or if it was a normal distribution, it simply didn’t say. And for more detail I refer you now to Jessica Palmer’s analysis (though I disagree that predicted offense should automatically merit block of publication):

  3. NatC says:

    You are confusing gender (which is cultural) and sex (which is biological).
    There is no evidence for a biological difference here, just a cultural one, and certainly no evidence for “sexual dimorphism”, merely gendered stereotyping – which is reinforced by stories explicitly or implicitly stating that “women do X, men do Y”.
    Not to mention design flaws in the study including the skewing of statistics when you are comparing two groups in which the number of samples in one is almost twice that of the other, and the unreliability of report-only measures, especially of behaviors related to cultural norms ( that people lie/misrepresent is a well known issue with self-report measures), which preclude any real conclusions from being drawn.

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      “You are confusing…” – probably. Sorry for that! Not my area of expertise.
      And as for flaws in the study – quite possibly; I don’t do stats well. Because I don’t HAVE to; I am in a thing-based as opposed to a number-based branch of science. However, and however – has anyone outright refuted them? Have bigger studies been done? It would be interesting to see.

  4. echidne says:

    Here are my problems with this basic argument: First, shopping in itself is a gendered task today. Women do most of household shopping and manage much of it. If you are responsible for the kitchen towels and suddenly see them on sale you buy them. If you are not responsible for household comestibles and such you will not buy them. You might not even “see” them.

    Most studies looking for evolutionary differences in shopping behavior do not standardize for the differences in current gender roles OR the amount of prior practice men and women, even young men and women have already received.

    Second, our knowledge of the division of labor between hunting and gathering by gender is obviously totally theoretical when it comes to prehistory. All we can really study are currently existing groups which might or might not look like those prehistoric ancestors. In those groups the men are more likely to hunt large game than women, but both sexes do some hunting and both sexes do some gathering. And everyone appears to join in with very large hunting expeditions, even the children.

    None of this is to argue about the existence or nonexistence of possible evolutionary differences, just to point out that we have certain proximal causes which might explain quite a bit about the observed differences. For instance, if you sent me to buy something I have never heard about, I’d approach the problem from the hunter’s point of view: Learn as much as possible beforehand, find the likely store and buy the damn thing. But when I go shopping for food I don’t necessarily do it that way, due to the knowledge I already have and the shopping lists inside my mind. I check to see what is on sale before I plan the dinner and so on.

    • BM says:

      You make very good points. Now, it makes me think that those publications cited here have missed other perspectives. It will be interesting to see if they repeat their experiments but this time the experiment is done with 4 groups. Group 1 (with knowledge) = men shop at their familiar store for supplies that reflects their hobbies (e.g., plastic models building, surfing), Group 2 (with knowledge) = same as group 1, except they are women, Group 3 (without knowledge) = men asked to shop at a new store for items they don’t know and are given a shopping list, and Group 4 (without knowledge) = same as group 2, except they are women. It may not be surprising that you are right that there is No such thing of branding men are “hunters” or women are “gatherers”.

  5. Ed Rybicki says:

    How nice it is to have commentary that is not hateful and inflammatory…thanks, echidne; your points are well taken!

    • oldfeminist says:

      Ed, the responses you consider hateful and inflammatory are mostly just expressing how sick and tired a lot of us women are of yet another article that assumes the reader is a man (why else assume the reader has a female significant other unless you think all female scientists are lesbians?), that what men do is logical and can be described that way, but what women do is intuitive, non-logical and perhaps magical, and definitely not explainable except by positing spooky alternate universes.

      This just sounds quirky and perhaps delightful or at least ignorable to you. If someone wrote such an article about Eds or about Nature writers, you could just brush it off, right? Not like these hypersensitive women who probably are a little hysterical, right?

      If that’s what you’re thinking, that would be because you haven’t had this happen to you *all your life* and *all your career*.

      You haven’t had men ask you if you’re having that time of the month if you’re challenging them or not sweet as pie (no matter that the men making this accusation might typically have the personality of a snake). You haven’t had men assume you’re going to quit if you get pregnant. You haven’t had men assume you should take it as a compliment if they say they’d have sex with you. You haven’t had men ignore what you say then repeat it themselves to have the other men go “by gum Bob really has a great idea there!” You haven’t been lumped into the category “men scientists.”

      You’re just a scientist.

      If you were a woman and a scientist, and hoped that maybe today you could go to the humor/observations section of Nature and wouldn’t read about how you, the “other” that these two scientists are carefully observing, are mysterious and unknowable and your knowledge comes not from learning or experience but a portal into another dimension, something you were born with and did not develop yourself, you might be a little pissed off about it.

      You might be more pissed off when you read that the author thinks he wrote this based on scientific findings, rather just unexamined assumptions. Because I’m pretty sure you hadn’t read all these supposed supportive articles before you wrote this piece, you went looking for them after the fact and also didn’t go looking for any articles that do not support your point of view. Very bad science indeed — the way you should approach your preconceived notions is to try to demolish them, look for contradictory evidence, not prop them up by any means necessary.

      If you want an example of men “gathering” instead of “hunting,” put them in an environment they’ve been trained from birth to both value and spend endless time over — perhaps a hardware store, or a car parts store, or an electronics store, or a fitness store, or a music store. They can spend a long time browsing, comparing, discovering. They notice new inventory and compare it to the old. If you ask them where the guitar strings or the spark plugs or the tape dope is, they know, apparently instinctively with some spooky alternative universe information, where to find it, how much it should cost, what the best brand is, and why you don’t want to buy it here, but there, and not now, but after Christmas or on Labor Day.

      • Ed Rybicki says:

        @oldfeminist: Thank you for those points – made in a reasoned and mature way. Which may sound condescending, but man! (sorry, person!) I am getting sick of this ad hominem attack crap.

        I was only trying to point out that there ARE others that have said, in what appear to be respectable scientific circles as well as in the commercial environment, that there are gender differences when it comes to shopping.

        And yes, if I’d had some of the experiences you speak of, I’d probably be pissed off too.

        But you know something? All I was trying to do was relate something that friends and I had found amusing. Very well educated friends, including women. I had hoped that it might transcend stereotypes, and make people smile.

        It obviously pissed a bunch of people off – and I am sorry for that. Does the story mean that I am an irredeemable sexist? I don’t think so – and nor does anyone close to me, it seems (I’ve asked). Hopelessly unscientific, but hey, I don’t feel like doing a full-on survey.

        So – thanks again.

      • oldfeminist says:

        Ed, I don’t think you’re irredeemable. Most of us would just give up and walk away if we thought so.

      • Ed Rybicki says:

        Thank you. Really.

  6. Nick B says:

    Just one more point to note: Out culture did not arise out of evolution in a vacuum. Ultimately all cultural elements must originate in biology in some manner or another, even if it was only slight differences that were exaggerated to what we’ve seen over time.

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      Hi Nick B: yes, we are all animals, whether we like it or not – and we evolved, right along with the mice and rats that we use to study…all sorts of things, including sex-specific preferences in a variety of settings (I don’t think lab animals are too worried about gender).

  7. BM says:

    @Ed Rybicki,
    Let’s put a side our social status, gender, age, race, or etc. I now write to you as a concern human being. I have read articles, blogs and comments that response to your Nature article. Yes, people are angry with you article and they wrote many unpleasant criticisms or comments about you. I’m sure what they wrote don’t represent who you are, and in your real life, you’re a good father, good husband, good friend, good scientist, and basically, a decent human being. You’re a respectable scientist, but you’re also a mentor of your students. What concerns me is that you’re not handling those criticisms tactfully or gracefully and that your students or those see you as their role model are learning from your actions. Instead of replying to those unpleasant criticisms with unpleasant comments, why not take all those criticisms (better or worst) as a lesson to improve oneself ? I hope you could spare 5 minutes of your time to read this article :
    Anyways, thanks for reading my comments. In the end, it’s your choice to choose which way to go. Good luck !

  8. Ed says: I think we can close out the comments, and bring l’affaire Womanspace to a close – at least from my point of view – with this helpful and constructive posting. From Comrade PhysioProf, then:

    “Does the story mean that I am an irredeemable sexist?”

    Dumshitte [sic], why are you incapable of getting it through your thicke fucken [sic x2] skull that whether you are or are not “an irredeemable sexist” is 100% completely irrelevant to the appropriate understanding of your story vis-a-vis misogyny and the systemic oppression of women? How many fucken [sic] times does this have to be explained to you before you’ll get a fucken [sic] clue?

  9. Astrokid.NJ says:

    I posted this at Lateral Truth. Thought it might make sense here as well.
    Via PZ’s post on this, you can find a collection of blog posts targeting Ed. wow.
    Womanspace: Responses to Rybicki’s display of male privilege on NPG

    Let me get this straight.
    Feminists have demonized and targeted men for the last 50 years. Doris Lessing herself had this to say in 2001
    Lay off men, Lessing tells feminists. Novelist condemns female culture that revels in humiliating other sex

    “I find myself increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed,” the 81-year-old Persian-born writer said yesterday.
    “It is time we began to ask who are these women who continually rubbish men. The most stupid, ill-educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest and most intelligent man and no one protests.

    In every damn area, men have been demonized. Even boys havent been spared. for e.g Domestic Violence.. it has been established by academics since 1985 that it happens in both directions, in approx. equal amounts.
    In Defense of Abused Men
    Feminists never allow this truth to come out. They put out such ads in mainstream, propagandizing “men are perpetrators (always), women are victims (always)”
    Monsters In the Closet – Domestic Violence From a Child’s View
    Men are rapists, and need to be taught.. catch them young right when they are babies

    Type “awaiting instructions respect women” within quotes in to see the billboards in NYC targeting boys.

    This makes men’s blood boil.

    And men cant even say that women have inclinations towards shopping?? This is feminist justice? This is why many men are withdrawing away from women. Fuck this shit.

    • BM says:

      Well, you can look at specific cases in your exterme views of Feminism, the other side can look at cases (historical and current events) in an extreme views of how women were/are also being targeted. If you want to state a case in one extereme, you will have to look at the other end of extreme ? One extreme side has to exist in order the other side to exist, that’s how things are. If you look at majority people (or genders if you want to see it thay way) as a whole, they aren’t as “devastating” as how you see it.
      If you place too much importance to those extreme cases and get work-out by it, you will miss the whole picture.

      • Astrokid.NJ says:

        What extreme cases? I pointed to mainstream stuff, which is despicable enough to look extreme.

        Not Andrea Dworkin or Catherine McKinnon or Gail Dines’s feminist theory from earlier years. Not contemporary writings of Amanda Marcotte or Jessica Valenti to suspend presumption of innocence in cases of alleged sexual assault.

        “extreme views” contemporary feminism would be The Women at RadFem Hub.. who want to wipe out 90% of the male population, as Mary Daly recommended.. as exposed by the Agent Orange Files, many of whom are everyday commoners.. like child care workers, lawyers, BigBrother contestants, school teachers. Dont forget to read their own words in the snapshots on this article Radfem Hub: the underbelly of a hate movement
        Full set of Agent Orange Files here

  10. Astrokid.NJ says:

    Ed, did you see this? feminists protesting “peacefully”? especially towards the end.
    Warren Farrell protest at the University of Toronto – Full version

    And that this is nothing new? ex-NOW Los Angeles President Tammy Bruce talked about this .. the difference between Protest and “Initimidation and shutdown” … way back in 2002 in her book “The New Thought Police”. Wonderful vid here, if you can spare 30 mins for her talk and 1 hr for fabulous presentation.

    In fact, this goes back right to the beginning of the second wave.. there’s a Lace Curtain whereby men cant voice their side of the story.. any story.. only women are allowed to talk about gender issues. Else.. hulksmash!

  11. Ed Rybicki says:

    As we say in this country (usually with a helpless shrug): Ja nee, boet!

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