Women Can Be Irrational, Too


Touching boxer shorts changes female behavior
This is big news for guys. For years, I’ve gently mocked my half of the species for being far-too-easily influenced by female images. Babes in bikinis alter male behavior, but it doesn’t always take that much. Simply including a photo of an attractive woman in a loan offer was enough to boost the response rate as much as a 4% lower interest rate (see A Pretty Woman Beats a Good Loan Deal). Women, meanwhile, have been shown to be largely immune to manipulation by mere photos. In Brainfluence, my chapter on gender is heavily skewed toward influencing males – mostly because it’s far easier!

It would be easy to conclude that guys are ridiculously shallow (even subconsciously), but a new study shows that women aren’t actually immune to what psychologists call “sexual primes.” The lack of female response in past research seems to have been due to the investigators priming the wrong sense: sight. Touch, it turns out, is the more powerful sense for women.

Reward Seeking

The behavior that researchers have found in men exposed to sexual primes is “reward seeking.” Male subjects become more short-term oriented and more impatient. They are less willing to delay gratification for a larger future reward. If they were subjects in an adult marshmallow test, guys primed with female images would gobble the marshmallows and ransack the room for the rest of the bag.

The Belgian scientists tried a different approach to priming women. Instead of showing female subjects images of bare-chested hunks or Clooney-clones, they had women touch a pair of men’s boxer shorts. They found that the tactile stimulus increased reward-seeking behavior among women and made them less loss averse for both money and food.

Challenge for Marketers

Marketers have exploited the ease of priming males since the dawn of advertising. Even today, one sees advertising with the gratuitous insertion of attractive female imagery, mostly in ads for products and services bought primarily by males.

Knowing that women can be influenced in a similar way by tactile stimuli may make male marketers feel better about their gender, but it doesn’t make their job much easier. Visual cues can be easily added in many media: print, email, websites, video, TV commercials, etc. Tactile cues, particularly something specific like a pair of boxer shorts, just don’t lend themselves to easy or inexpensive inclusion in marketing.

I do think this research could have a bit of applicability in retail – packaging and displays that let female shoppers touch samples of men’s apparel (aren’t women the biggest buyers of underwear for men?) might result in higher sales.

Beyond Boxers?

Presumably, other tactile primes might work as well as boxers. Surely, there’s some readily available conference swag item that might do the trick. If you have a creative idea, please leave a (SFW) comment!

  1. Caroline Winnett says

    Hi Roger,

    Great study. Can you forward the reference?

  2. Roger Dooley says

    It’s linked above, Caroline. I added an underline, the links don’t stand out very well from the text in this theme. Time to tweak the CSS…

    1. Caroline Winnett says

      Thank you!

  3. Joe says

    I am not sure how I will work this information into one of my client sites, but I now have a few new ideas for my marriage. Thanks!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Great concept, Joe – this is definitely an in-person kind of technique!

      1. Joe says

        Roger – I just realized that we spent an evening talking shop back in 2003 (I think). You, me, bakedjake and DigitalGhost and a few others. It was an after conference party put on by Chicago from Webmasterworld. I never put it together before – I even bought your book (and read it).


  4. Susan Chin says

    When shopping with my husband, he often comments on my need to feel everything. Mystery solved!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Interesting, Susan – I wonder if shopper videos show that female shoppers tend to touch products more often?

  5. Steve Freeman says

    I read not long ago about another study done on smell. The question was what smell creates interest in the opposite sex?. For men it was expensive perfume, for women it was baby powder. Sorry, I don’t have a link for the study.

    Roger, your post presents issues for those who market a product online. My thought would be if a woman can’t touch would she be more likely to respond to an image of a woman touching, or an image of a man and woman embracing while the woman focuses on touching the mans sweater, or whatever.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Steve, I can’t cite the source, but I have dim memory that women reacted more to images of more than one person interacting in one test. This is probably a good time to crank up your optimizing program and do some A/B testing!

    2. Tag says

      I thought men prefer the smell of cinnamon buns.

  6. Annie Craven says

    Great post!
    What a great study, I really enjoy being able to see the difference between men and women. Not trying to be bias, but they tend to show how complicated women really are. It will be interesting to see how marketing uses `touch` for their online strategies. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Tim Gray says

    does that mean men should be better online customers and the fairer sex more influenced in-store? 🙂

  8. Roger Dooley says

    Tim, I’m not sure we can be that general. I’d say the study shows that if you intend to use sexual primes (or mating primes if you prefer) on the web you will have a better chance of persuading males than females. That doesn’t mean you can’t sell to females, you’ll just need to use other approaches.

    The buying process is more complex than one element – there are the objective aspects of the offer – price, features, delivery, etc., and a host of non-conscious factors as well.

  9. Phil Wollerman says

    Hi Roger,

    Good post – as usual. I have had a lot of experience in retail before moving to online marketing. I find there is a reasonably direct comparison between the sales process offline and on, but can’t see how we incorporate the tactile part of it.

    I noticed when managing a chain of menswear stores that window display was very important – this is where i think the customer see an item and goes “yes, I’d like to look like that” – essentially buying it – Once the visual signal was tripped, usually by colour and/or pattern, the prospect enters the store and looks around for the colour/pattern combination on the racks.

    If they don’t come seeking your help immediately it’s a good time to let them self-select. The next thing men do is touch – if the material feels “wrong” they don’t often go any further, whereas if that feels right then the process continues to pulling the item out and assessing it… time to intervene and direct them to try it on.

    We all know how that decision to but a pair of pants comes when you pull them on and they “just feel right”. That’s pretty tactile.

    I’ve also spent ten years marketing to women, in fashion – where visual imagery is incredibly important. It’s very topical to take a look at Burberry, right now, and see how their blending of online and offline into a sensory “experience” tripled their margins over less than a decade.

    I suspect that men and women are essentially more alike in this than the research seems to show, but, as other posters have acknowledge, women are more complicated…

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for the detailed observations, Phil! Good stuff… maybe that’s why Apple is hiring the Burberry CEO!

  10. Jeff says

    Interesting post, Roger — thanks for sharing. But when it comes to priming women, I’m somewhat surprised that no one thought about the fact that men tend to view or watch pornography while women tend to read it. It was not legions of men who turned 50 Shades of Gray into a blockbuster best seller. It is not men who keep Harlequin Romances flying off the shelf. So why wouldn’t psychologists attempt to prime women with words or sounds rather than touch or smells?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good insight, Jeff. I don’t know if those types of primes have been tested, although more general priming with words has been demonstrated. Unfortunately, visual primes are the easiest to incorporate across a range of media – the other senses tend to be dependent on environment or very specific channels.

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