Do Men and Women Make (Shopping) Decisions Differently?

Gleb Tsipursky
Men and women can differ significantly when it comes to shopping decisions.

Tyler was waiting on the bench outside the clothing store with a bunch of shopping bags full of clothes from other stores in the mall for over 15 minutes. “Why does Alexis have to hit every clothing store in the place?” Tyler thought for the tenth time that day. Getting more and more impatient, Tyler had enough, and texted Alexis asking for an ETA. Alexis texted back, apologizing for losing track of time, and came out 5 minutes later with two more shopping bags. 

His wife groaned, asking her husband why he enjoyed buying clothing so much. As usual, Alexis turned his head away, and told his wife it was just fun. 

Were you surprised to find out that it was the husband doing the clothes shopping, not the wife? Our cultural stereotypes place the husband, Alexis, in the position of waiting for his wife, Tyler. Yet how much do our cultural expectations align with reality about how men and women shop, in-person and online? 

In this article, I’ll use cutting-edge recent research in behavioral economics, cognitive neuroscience, and related fields to answer the question raised in the article’s title. First, we’ll answer the most fundamental question: how do we make decisions, anyway, and especially how the wiring of our brain and our evolutionary heritage causes us to make bad decisions. Second, we’ll explore the differences caused by gender to our decision making patterns. 

Third, we’ll focus on how men and women make decisions when they shop, in particular comparing in-person and online shopping. I can guarantee you’ll be surprised by some of these findings, especially by online shopping! Fourth, we’ll discuss how both men and women can make wiser shopping choices to overcome the faulty wiring in our brains, especially the specific kinds of disastrous decisions to which each gender is most vulnerable. 

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions...

Before a deep dive into shopping, let’s explore more broadly how we make decisions. We tend to think we’re rational decision makers, and choose the course of action that’s wisest for us. Yet recent research shows that our decisions stem primarily from our feelings: our gut reactions and intuitions. Once we make the decision emotionally, we then turn back and rationalize our decisions, justifying our choices to ourselves after the fact. 

What’s even worse: our gut reactions are not adapted for the modern world, but for the savanna environment. Scholars have discovered that we have 2 thinking and feeling systems in our mind, the Autopilot System and the Intentional System. 

The Autopilot System corresponds to our emotions and intuitions. This system guides our daily habits, helps us make snap decisions, and reacts instantly to dangerous life-and-death situations through the freeze, fight, or flight stress response

By contrast, the Intentional System reflects our rational thinking, and helps us handle more complex mental activities, such as managing individual and group relationships, logical reasoning, probabilistic thinking, and learning new information and patterns of thinking and behavior. While the automatic system requires no conscious effort to function, the intentional system takes deliberate effort to turn on and is mentally tiring. 

Here’s a quick visual comparison of the 2 systems:

Autopilot System

Intentional System

Fast, intuitive, emotional self
Conscious, reasoning, mindful self
Requires no effort
Takes intentional effort to turn on & drains mental energy
Automatic thinking, feeling, and behavior habits
Used mainly when we learn new information, and use reason and logic
Mostly makes good decisions, but is prone to some predictable and systematic errors
Can be trained to turn on when it detects Autopilot System making errors

The Autopilot System’s quick reactions to dangerous conditions helped our ancestors survive and flourish in the savanna environment, and we all are the descendants of those who did so: it’s in our genes to “go with our gut.” While we should rely on our intuitions and gut reactions in situations that resemble the savanna in terms of immediate danger—we don’t want to think too much when getting out of the way of a car—going with your gut often leads to terrible decisions in settings that diverge from the ancient savanna. 

As an example, in the savanna environment, those who got to food and other resources first and consumed as much as possible had a better shot at survival. We are the descendants of those who succeeded in doing so. In the modern world, however, following your gut reaction to eat the whole pint of ice cream at a time will really harm your health. To have good health and well-being, in our modern world we need to use the Intentional System to go against our gut reactions. Fortunately, with enough motivation and appropriate training, the intentional system can turn on in situations where the autopilot system is prone to make errors, especially costly ones.

Scholars use the label of “cognitive biases” for the faulty wiring in our minds that causes us to make bad decisions. Most cognitive biases result from mistakes made by going with our gut reactions, meaning Autopilot System errors. More rarely, cognitive biases are associated with Intentional System errors. Research has found more than 100 cognitive biases that cause us to make terrible decisions.

Sexed Decisions

The interplay between the Autopilot System and Intentional System characterize decision-making processes for both men and women. But are there any differences between how men and women make their choices?

Indeed, research shows some broad differences exist between men and women. You might not be surprised to learn that men are more risk blind than women, meaning willing to take more risks, including bad risks. Intriguingly, research shows that moderate stressors cause men to become worse at assessing risks, while the same levels of stress improve women’s abilities to assess risk and rewards. Similar findings apply to anxiety, where a moderate level of anxiety caused males to take bad risks, with women not impaired. Researchers find that such risk assessment applies to all sorts of decisions, including financial ones, which has clear relevance for shopping, as we’ll discuss shortly. The Autopilot System’s gut reactions play a clear role in explaining why women take fewer risks: they feel a lesser expectation of enjoyment from taking risks and a greater expectation of negative outcomes.

In a different but not unrelated area of decision making, a number of studies showed that men on average feel less concerned about ethical behavior than women. For instance, women are less likely to perceive behavior in grey areas of information privacy as ethical than men. Women have stronger intentions to act ethically than men. Women are especially more likely to act more ethically than men in relationships, part of a broader tendency of women to focus on and care more about relationships than men.

This finding not only matches our cultural stereotypes, but also aligns with our evolutionary behavior from the savanna. As an example, we lived in small tribes, and males provided the defense against hostile tribes. If men weren’t willing to take excessive risks by going out and doing combat, and go against their everyday sense of ethics, the tribe wouldn’t survive for its members to pass on genes. By contrast, it was important for women to more accurately assess risks and escape from dangerous situations, and less necessary to go against their ethics. We are the descendants of those tribes that survived this bloody dynamic.

Similarly, men who wanted to take a leadership role within a tribe had to fight the current leader for power. Taking on the alpha males was very risky, but rewarding in terms of being able to reproduce. By contrast, women of course can’t have that many children, making it unwise for them to take such risks. Fights for power are also facilitated by ignoring one’s ethical code, making it more important for men to do so. Those men who succeeded in such fights left more descendants. Indeed, the famous—and notoriously unscrupulous—conqueror Genghis Khan apparently fathered over 15 million descendants. 

Shops Till S/he Drops (or Disconnects)

First and foremost, the hard numbers on shopping are clear. Alexis is an unusual man in buying so much more clothing than his wife Tyler. In fact, women determine anywhere from 70% to 85% of all consumer purchases, whether as individuals or as part of a family. So marketers are wise to focus on women as the key decision makers in shopping. In fact, women by the 2010s began to buy over 50% of all products traditionally associated with males, such as cars, home improvement products, and consumer electronics.

These numbers intersect in an interesting way with online shopping. Around 69% of the US population bought something online, according to a 2018 Marist poll, with 43% shopping online regularly, and 26% occasionally. Yet despite women determining most purchases, this poll indicates they shop online less frequently than men, with 39% of women being regular online shoppers, 27% occasional, and 33% never purchasing online. By contrast, for men the comparable numbers are 47%, 25%, and 28%. Another survey showed that 22% of men made a purchase via their phone in 2013 compared to 18% of women. 

What explains these differences? Let’s go to our gut and see the role played by emotions. When evaluating the pleasure of shopping experiences, research shows women put a high positive value on in-store shopping and negative value on online shopping. Men show the exact opposite, enjoying online shopping much more than going to stores. Indeed, in-person shopping for many women is a form of what’s called “retail therapy,” where someone entertains and soothes themselves via shopping, lifting their own mood without the help of a therapist. 

Women have a stronger preference to shop in a more relational manner, focusing on social interactions, which in-person shopping facilitates. By contrast, men are more interested in straightforward transactional shopping, getting it done, according to surveys. No wonder that men have a stronger preference for online shopping, although online shopping experience with a social component is attractive to women.

Two more differences emerge from the data. First, male shoppers tend to search for a product that’s “good enough”—whether online or in-person—and buy it, moving on with their day. Women, however, prefer to search for the best possible product, taking extra time and effort to make sure they buy the perfect fit. Second, women are more attracted to finding the best deal than men, looking for coupons and bargains whenever possible.

Let’s circle back to the broad differences between the genders in making decisions. We know that men tend to take more risks, and shopping online is inherently more risky. First, you take a risk by not evaluating with your senses the object you’re about to purchase. Second, you’re taking a risk by trusting the vendor to ship you your purchase. Third, and especially in the context of massive data breaches, you’re taking a risk by transmitting your personal financial information over the internet. Fourth, the whole internet shopping experience is a new form of activity and thus inherently risky. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that men took to it more than women. 

You’ll find that other shopping behaviors can be explained in part by basic decision-making differences. For example, women tend to be more ethical, especially in relationships: shopping online undercuts retail jobs, and women’s relational ethical sensibilities might make them more reluctant to do so. Women searching for a product that’s the perfect fit exhibits risk avoidance behavior, compared to men who take the risk of finding the first thing that they see as “good enough” and buying it. The same risk avoidance behavior explains women’s tendency to engage in hunting for bargains. 

Intriguingly, studies show similar patterns of shopping behavior showing up across many different cultures. Given these similarities, we can be confident that a large part of the gender difference in shopping styles stems from our genes, rather than our cultural upbringing. 

Optimizing Shopping for Men and Women

As a result of their particular decision-making styles, both men and women make unwise shopping decisions. For instance, men take too many shortcuts and risks, buying the first thing that they perceive as good enough, even if what they buy may be far from good enough. 

Hey, I fall prey to this as well. I remember when the toilet seat in our bathroom broke. I went to the local hardware store, and got the only one that was available. How was I supposed to know that toilet seats come in different sizes, round or oval? Unfortunately, I bought the round one, and our toilet was made for an oval size, which I discovered after taking 15 minutes to set it up. My wife eventually had to research the right seat and purchase it. I ended up wasting both time and money, and learned my lesson to do more thorough research in the future. 

Women aren’t perfect, either. They tend to spend too long looking for bargains, wasting their precious resource of time. My wife regularly looks through over 10 pages of Google Shopping before buying something that was on the first page. She knows it’s a problem that drains her time, and works to free herself from this habit of finding the perfect thing to buy at a bargain-basement price.

In other words, women would benefit from acting more like men when they shop, and men would make wiser decisions if they acted more like women. Fortunately, recent research shows that we can easily improve our ability to make better decisions. Indeed, research has been done on the topic of fighting against gender preferences when shopping, and those who hold more egalitarian gender attitudes can act more like the other gender when shopping.

The key is to know where you’re likely to make mistakes, whether men by taking too many shortcuts and risks, or women by wasting their invaluable resource of time by searching for the perfect bargain. Then, train your Intentional System to catch yourself when your Autopilot System is falling into those mistakes and go against your intuition to emulate the pattern of the other gender, so as to avoid the cognitive biases common to yours. In other words—learn to recognize yourself making poor choices, and think about how you can shop smarter, despite your gut reactions.

Avoid dangerous decision disasters by getting the article author's new book, Never Go With Your Gut

Gleb Tsipursky
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a writer for Top10 and a scholar of behavioral economics and neuroscience. Called the 'Office Whisperer' by The New York Times, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps leaders improve retention and productivity as the CEO of the consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He's also the best-selling author of several books, and was featured in over 750 titles in CBS News, Time, Scientific American, Psychology Today, Inc. Magazine, and CNBC.