Genes account for male, female shopping styles

When men and women hit Kmart, the sex differences in shopping strategies illuminate like Blue Light Specials, and we can look to evolution for the answer.

Daniel Kruger, research faculty at the School of Public Health, says it's perfectly natural that so many men can't distinguish a sage from a beige sock, or that just as many woman can't tell if the shoe department is due north or west from the escalator. From an evolutionary perspective, it all harkens back to the skills that women use for gathering plant foods and those that men use for hunting meat. The contrast emerges because of the different foraging strategies for hunting and gathering used throughout human evolution.

Sex-specific strategies can be seen in the modern consumer environment, according to Kruger's new study, "Evolved foraging psychology underlies sex differences in shopping experiences and behaviors," scheduled for the December issue of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, & Cultural Psychology. The study examines shopping through the framework of evolutionary psychology to understand why so many more women enjoy spending a day picking through racks of clothes with friends, while most men can't get out of the mall fast enough.

"We have evidence that the kind of skills, abilities and behaviors that are important for hunting and gathering in current foraging societies emerge predictably in our modern consumer environment," says Kruger, who decided to conduct the study after a winter holiday trip with friends across Europe. After exploring sleepy little villages and reaching Prague, the first thing the women wanted to do was shop, Kruger says, and the men couldn't understand why.

"But that is not so unreasonable if you're thinking about a gathering strategy," Kruger says. "Anytime you come into a new area you want to scope out the landscape and find out where the food patches are."

In modern terms, women are much more likely to know when a specific type of item will go on sale, for example, than men. Women also spend much more time choosing the perfect fabric, color and texture.

Men on the other hand, often have a specific item in mind and want to get in, get it, and get out. It's critical to get meat home as quickly as possible, Kruger says. Taking young children isn't safe in a hunt and would likely hinder progress. Of course these behaviors aren't genetically determined and don't apply to everyone, but there are consistent broad themes, he says.

So why is this important? "The value is in understanding each other," Kruger says. "Both your own shopping strategy and the strategy of the complimentary sex. It helps demystify behaviors; guys, myself included, have been puzzled by why women shop the way they do." And women can have a hard time understanding a man's aversion to it, he says.