When women are part of a decision-making team, compromise is likely. If it’s all up to men, on the other hand, the “extreme” option will often win.
That’s according to a new study that tested people’s buying decisions, when alone or paired up with another person.
In general, the researchers found, when a man was teamed with another man, they typically went for the extreme choice — the “biggest, heaviest” grill, instead of a lighter version, for example.
That was not true, however, when a man decided on his own, or when at least one woman was part of the team. In those cases, the middle-of-the-road choice often won out.
What’s more, the study found, men often looked down on other men who wanted a more cautious choice — such as a less risky stock market investment.
They didn’t judge women for such moderation, however.
It all suggests that when men work with each other, there’s pressure to go all-or-nothing, said study co-author Hristina Nikolova, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston College.
Men can feel the need to prove their masculinity when they’re among other men, Nikolova said. And since the compromise option is typically associated with “feminine norms,” she said, men together may be prone to rejecting it and opting for the extreme.
That dynamic is not at work, however, when a man is deciding alone. “So a man choosing a restaurant alone might go for a place that’s medium on price and that offers a reasonably good meal,” Nikolova said.
“That’s a choice that won’t create a lot of waves or break the bank. But if two men are in charge of choosing a restaurant together, they’re more likely to opt for either an opulent, expensive place or a true hole-in-the-wall,” she said.
The findings, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, are based on a series of experiments with 1,200 college students and another 673 online participants. They were asked to make decisions about buying various things, such as toothpaste, tires, printers, grills, and whether to buy risky or safe stocks. They were asked to purchase these things alone or with a partner.
In the grill scenario, half of the male-male pairs picked the “extreme” option (the biggest, heaviest product), compared to only 15 percent of men who chose that option when they were alone.
Few women picked the extreme, whether they decided alone or with another woman. Most often (almost three-quarters of the time), they selected the middle-of-the-road option. There was a similar pattern when men and women chose together.
Therese Huston is a faculty development consultant at Seattle University. She said the new findings are interesting because they highlight the dynamics of how men and women make decisions with a partner, and not only on their own.
And the implications could go beyond fairly simple, low-stakes decisions such as buying a grill, according to Huston, who was not involved with the study.
For example, she said, what happens when a male patient and male doctor are making a decision about treating prostate cancer? It’s a disease with a number of treatment choices, including the conservative “watchful waiting” approach or more aggressive management.
“Could this same dynamic play out between male patients and male doctors?” Huston said. “It’s an interesting question.”
The study findings would also seem to contradict the stereotype that women typically make “emotional” or “intuitive” decisions, while men are the rational ones, according to Huston.
It’s a stereotype that other studies have doubted, she noted. In fact, Huston said, there is evidence that when men are stressed, they tend to “go for the home run” — rather than opting for the middle-of-the-road choice.
The study has limitations, however. Participants were making decisions with strangers, not people they knew, Huston pointed out. Plus, real-life decisions typically have a more complicated context compared with a controlled experiment.
Still, Huston said men might want to be aware that their decision-making can be subconsciously influenced by the presence of another man. “It may change what looks attractive to you,” she said.
Nikolova agreed. “Being aware of these tendencies to be extreme might help them figure out what they really want — and not make a choice just for the sake of proving their masculinity,” she said.
Like Huston, she said the findings have implications beyond grill-buying: The same dynamics could very well play out in the workplace, or in politics.
The American Psychological Association has more on the psychology of decision-making.