Real Men Don’t Eat Very Berry Cheesecake
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Marketing Nov 1, 2010

Real Men Don’t Eat Very Berry Cheesecake

Man­ly pref­er­ences take their toll

Based on the research of

David Gal

James Wilkie

When James Wilkie, a PhD stu­dent at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, began think­ing about the sub­tle effects that the shape of objects can have on human behav­ior, he had no idea it would lead to research that would sug­gest that men sur­vey and edit their pref­er­ences for every­day objects in order to avoid the high costs of gen­der nonconformity. 

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What’s more, Wilkie found, the effort men require to con­stant­ly mas­culin­ize their pref­er­ences for every­thing from food to show­er heads can take a toll on their abil­i­ty to per­form oth­er cog­ni­tive­ly demand­ing tasks.

There is a sprawl­ing lit­er­a­ture argu­ing that men feel more pres­sure than women to con­form to gen­der norms, which Wilkie and his advi­sor, David Gal, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School, dis­cov­ered only after they had con­duct­ed ini­tial research on how cre­at­ing con­di­tions of cog­ni­tive scarci­ty affect the choic­es of men and women.

I think what sur­prised us ini­tial­ly was how per­va­sive gen­der asso­ci­a­tions were with every­day items, such as with ordi­nary food items and house­hold items like door han­dles and sinks that were shaped in par­tic­u­lar ways. Also, we were sur­prised by the sub­tle­ty of manip­u­la­tions that could influ­ence gen­der asso­ci­a­tions. For instance, giv­ing foods a more sophis­ti­cat­ed sound­ing name tend­ed to make peo­ple per­ceive the foods as more fem­i­nine,” Gal says.

Wilkie and Gal found that, unlike men, women do not appear to pref­er­en­tial­ly make fem­i­nine” choic­es when pre­sent­ed with lists of objects with fem­i­nine and mas­cu­line asso­ci­a­tions, and as a con­se­quence they do not suf­fer deficits in pro­cess­ing abil­i­ty when forced to choose between the two.

If we had found that women behaved the same as men — that is, they made more fem­i­nine choic­es — we wouldn’t have pur­sued this or pub­lished it because that wouldn’t have been as inter­est­ing as what we found,” Wilkie says.

The Think­ing Man’s Choice
The two researchers teased out these phe­nom­e­na with a series of four exper­i­ments. In the first exper­i­ment, men and women were pre­sent­ed with a list of menu items that, it was pre­vi­ous­ly estab­lished, sound­ed either mas­cu­line of fem­i­nine. Then half the men and half the women were giv­en either all the time they need­ed to choose the items they would like from the list or too lit­tle time, thus sim­u­lat­ing con­di­tions of either high or low avail­abil­i­ty of men­tal pro­cess­ing resources. 

Men with too lit­tle time made food choic­es in the same man­ner as women — that is, they chose equal­ly from a ran­dom­ized list both fem­i­nine” and mas­cu­line” items. Men with ample time to mull their choic­es, how­ev­er, were more like­ly to choose the mas­cu­line items, but not so women in the same situation.

Men are real­ly sen­si­tive about appear­ing like they’re mak­ing gen­der-appro­pri­ate choic­es, where­as women don’t appear to care at all.”

There’s lit­er­a­ture show­ing that when peo­ple have time or can con­cen­trate on things, they tend to incor­po­rate norms or expec­ta­tions or things like that into their deci­sions,” Wilkie says.

The sec­ond exper­i­ment pro­ceed­ed in the same way as the first, but instead of a pauci­ty of time, Wilkie and Gal used dis­trac­tions to cre­ate con­di­tions of low men­tal pro­cess­ing resources. They also had men and women choose from a pic­to­r­i­al list of every­day objects, from door­knobs and mir­rors to show­er­heads and cof­fee tables. Pre­vi­ous work by oth­er researchers had estab­lished that peo­ple in west­ern cul­tures per­ceive objects with angles as more mas­cu­line and round­ed objects as more feminine.

The results were the same: with­out enough men­tal resources to make the right” — gen­der-nor­ma­tive — choice, men chose equal­ly from among the fem­i­nine and mas­cu­line objects, just like women, but giv­en more time, they tend­ed to select the mas­cu­line objects. The shapes exper­i­ment showed that you can have these sub­tle asso­ci­a­tions with any kind of item, and they affect your choic­es with­out your real­ly real­iz­ing it,” Wilkie says.

In Wilkie and Gal’s third and fourth exper­i­ments, they reversed the chain of cause and effect in order to show that the effort required to make gen­dered choic­es degrades men’s per­for­mances on oth­er cog­ni­tive­ly demand­ing tasks.

For exam­ple, in their third exper­i­ment, Wilkie and Gal had men and women choose from lists that includ­ed either only objects asso­ci­at­ed with their gen­der or a mix of mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine objects. Men, but not women, forced to choose between objects of both gen­ders sub­se­quent­ly per­formed worse on a test of their abil­i­ties — an ana­gram task. 

Sim­i­lar­ly, in the last exper­i­ment, men who had to engage in a task that threat­ened their mas­culin­i­ty — list­ing things they talked about with female but not male friends — were sub­se­quent­ly more like­ly to make gen­der-con­gru­ent food choic­es, but only when they had enough cog­ni­tive resources available.

The pro­found dif­fer­ences between men and women uncov­ered in these exper­i­ments were ini­tial­ly not what we expect­ed,” Wilkie says. When we found that women weren’t chang­ing choic­es at all and men were, that made us want to explore more,” he adds.

Mar­ket­ing to Men
The research has a num­ber of impli­ca­tions, among them that how food should be mar­ket­ed to men depends on the goals of the par­ty doing the advertising.

In terms of mar­ket­ing impli­ca­tions, our find­ings sug­gest that prod­ucts or brands that are tar­get­ed to both men and women might want to err on the side of adopt­ing a mas­cu­line rather than fem­i­nine posi­tion­ing, since men are more like­ly to be influ­enced by prod­uct and brand gen­der asso­ci­a­tions,” Gal says. For exam­ple, Coca-Cola real­ized that Diet Coke, by hav­ing the word Diet’ in the name, was per­ceived as fem­i­nine, so it intro­duced Coke Zero specif­i­cal­ly as a no-calo­rie drink with a mas­cu­line identity.”

Any­one attempt­ing to get men to eat health­i­er should also keep this research in mind. It isn’t always the case that men have to eat steak all the time — they can eat healthy and might be more apt to eat in that man­ner if healthy food is described in a more mas­cu­line man­ner,” Wilkie says. For exam­ple, in their exper­i­ments, Wilkie and Gal referred to chunks” instead of bits” of fruit to denote mas­culin­i­ty in yogurt.

The deep­er mean­ing of this work derives from its con­fir­ma­tion of a larg­er lit­er­a­ture on the gen­der-nor­ma­tive pres­sures that men feel but rarely dis­cuss. The stereo­type in west­ern cul­tures — Wilkie expects his results would have been dif­fer­ent had he con­duct­ed his exper­i­ments on sub­jects oth­er than Amer­i­cans — is that men are insen­si­tive and don’t care about what peo­ple think about them, where­as women do, Wilkie says.

This is an instance where the exact oppo­site is the case,” Wilkie says. Men are real­ly sen­si­tive about appear­ing like they’re mak­ing gen­der-appro­pri­ate choic­es, where­as women don’t appear to care at all.”

Relat­ed read­ing on Kel­logg Insight:

The Bio­chem­istry of Finan­cial Risk: Testosterone’s influ­ence on finan­cial decisions

Act­ing White,” or Just Act­ing Ratio­nal­ly? Social pres­sures to fit in can explain the black-white edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment gap

Featured Faculty

David Gal

Member of the Marketing Department faculty until 2014

About the Writer

Christopher Mims is a freelance writer based in Gainesville, Florida.

About the Research

Gal, David, and James Wilkie. 2010. Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche: Regulation of Gender-Expressive Choices in Men. Social Psychological and Personality Science, October, 1(4): 291-301.

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