Why men and women shop the way they do


They shuffle along with blank faces and dead eyes, unseeing, unthinking, lost in some private hell that you as passerby can only pray never similarly engulfs you. You scuttle by, eyes averted, as though they have some horrible contagion against which neither face masks, Tamiflu nor vaccination can defend…and yet the odds are that for all your precautions, before Christmas arrives you will join their tormented ranks.

What’s that? Yes, zombies are big in pop culture right now, but what’s that go to do with…? Oh, I get it.

No, sorry, this column isn’t about zombies. It’s about husbands going shopping with their wives. It turns out there’s a solid scientific explanation for why women shop the way they do…and why men find it baffling.

At least, that’s the claim of Daniel Kruger of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. According to his study, about to be published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, it all goes back to our evolutionary heritage.

“It’s perfectly natural that men often can’t distinguish a sage sock from a beige sock or that sometimes women can’t tell if the shoe department is due north or west from the escalator,” is how the university’s press release about the study puts it.

“From an evolutionary perspective, it all harkens back to the skills that women used for gathering plant foods and the skills that men used for hunting meat.” the press release continues.

Kruger conducted his study during a winter holiday trip with friends across Europe.  (Nice work if you can get it!)

He says that after exploring sleepy little villages and finally reaching Prague, the first thing the women wanted to do was shop–and the men couldn’t understand why.

It makes sense, though, if you think of it in terms of 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.”

He points out that in hunter-gatherer societies, gathering edible plants and fungi is traditionally done by women. The women return to the same patches of land where they have previously successfully found food, usually staying close to home and using landmarks as guides.

Foraging is a daily activity, often social, he goes on, and can include young children if necessary. The gathering women have to be adept at recognizing the colours, textures and smells that ensure safe, quality food, and must also be able to recognize how long it takes a patch of land to regenerate a quantity of food after it has been harvested.

How does that translate to modern terms? Women, says Kruger, are much more likely than men to know when a specific type of item will go on sale, and spend much more time choosing the perfect fabric, colour and texture. They’re usually willing to take their kids shopping with them.

Men are usually the hunters in hunter-gatherer societies. Once they’ve killed something, it’s important to get meat home as quickly as possible. Taking children along on a hunt isn’t safe and could make success harder to achieve.

Fast-forward to modern times: men usually have a specific item in mind from a store, and want to go in, get it, and get out as quickly as possible, preferably unhindered by having to look after a child at the same time.

Having made that connection, though, Kruger backs away from it a little bit, admitting that of course these behaviors aren’t genetically determined and don’t apply to everyone. Nevertheless, they’re common enough stereotypes that he believes there’s value in considering them as a result of what his paper calls “Evolved foraging psychology.”

“The value is in understanding each other–both your own shopping strategy and the strategy of the complementary sex,” Kruger says. “It helps demystify behaviors–guys, myself included, have been puzzled by why women shop the way they do.”

Similarly, women can have a hard time understanding a man’s aversion to shopping, he says.

As for practical applications beyond mutual understanding–well, Kruger doesn’t mention any, but personally I think the next time I’m asked to go shopping, I’ll demur on the grounds I have to go kill a woolly mammoth for supper.

I’m sure that will be an acceptable excuse. Won’t it, dear?

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2009/12/why-men-and-women-shop-the-way-they-do/

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