The study: Anouk Festjens and her colleagues invited female students to perform “customer research” for an apparel company by examining men’s boxers or T-shirts, and then rating the items on factors such as fabric quality. When study participants later answered questions involving financial choices, the researchers found that subjects who had handled the boxers—a “sexual cue”—were more willing to take risks and more impatient for rewards than those assigned to evaluate the T-shirts or to only look at the boxers.
The challenge: Does touching men’s underwear really make women more likely to indulge in risky, reward-seeking behavior? Ms. Festjens, defend your research.
Festjens: There’s a long history of research showing that men’s economic decisions change after they’re exposed to sexual cues, such as pictures of models or lingerie. But because women didn’t respond to visual cues in early studies on this phenomenon, they were left out of subsequent ones. The experiments I did with Sabrina Bruyneel and Siegfried Dewitte at KU Leuven show that if the sexual cue is tactile, women react much like men. Touch seems to be a more effective way to trigger the reward circuitry in their brains. And, like men, when they’re primed to think about sex, they’ll crave other kinds of rewards—money, chocolate, wine, and so on. We also found that women who handled boxers required bigger incentives to delay a €15 payment and were willing to gamble larger amounts in a hypothetical dice game than women assigned to rate the T-shirts.
HBR: Why would touch be a more powerful trigger?
Because it brings you closer to the stimulus, and the closer you are, the more you want to have it. Benjamin Bushong and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology described a similar effect in a paper in the American Economic Review. They’d found that people’s willingness to pay for snacks like a Snickers bar increased in tandem with their proximity to the food: Those who merely read the word “Snickers” bid the smallest amounts of money; those who saw a picture of the candy or viewed it behind Plexiglas offered a bit more; and those presented with it on a tray, the most. It’s a Pavlovian response.
And touching the object is the next step?
Yes. Another study we cite, from Joann Peck at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Jennifer Wiggins Johnson at Kent State University, showed that people were more likely to donate time and money to a charity supporting the homeless when its pamphlets included a fabric sample from the blankets its volunteers hand out. Of course, our research considered the strength of touch only when it comes to sexual cues and financial behavior in women versus men. We’d need further investigation to determine whether it has the same effect in other scenarios.
Why would visual sexual cues activate risk taking in men but not in women?
Evolutionary psychologists would argue that men, who have an unlimited ability to reproduce, are trained to pick their partners based on visual information—such as health, youth, and beauty—and to link their ability to attract those partners to their wealth, since that’s how women, with their limited ability to reproduce and higher parental investment, identify the best providers. For women, it’s the reverse: They instinctively look for signals of status in potential mates and link their ability to attract those mates to their looks.
In fact, Kristina Durante at the University of Texas and Sarah E. Hill at Texas Christian University have shown that visual sexual cues cause women to change their beauty-related decisions. They are more likely to buy diet pills or coupons for the tanning salon, for example. But it takes a stronger trigger to change their financial decisions.
Are boxers really that sexy? They make me think about laundry.
We’ve heard that comment from a few other people, too. But our subjects were female college students, so they may not have been as accustomed to washing men’s clothes as older women are. And using boxers—which were made of gray or black cotton, the same as the T-shirts—allowed us to keep the study as parallel as possible to a previous one that had asked male subjects to evaluate bras, which we replicated as part of this research.
No one ever questioned whether men would get aroused by bras, of course. Indeed, we found that men’s willingness to pay for a variety of products was significantly higher after any kind of exposure to a sexual cue—visual or tactile—versus a neutral cue. For women, the correlations were more complex. Those who handled boxers were more likely to increase their spending on indulgences like wine and chocolate than women who viewed boxers through Plexiglas or handled T-shirts. Neither type of sexual cue seemed to affect willingness to pay for neutral items like computer keyboards or chairs. But, interestingly, touching T-shirts did.
What are the implications here for retailers? Brick-and-mortar stores beat online ones because women can touch things? Underwear sections should be at the front to get people, particularly men, to spend more?
We haven’t studied any of that, but if I had to make a prediction, I would say yes on both counts. Putting sexually laden cues at the entrance to a store, within touching range, might cause people to be more impulsive in their purchases. And brick-and-mortar retailers might have an advantage because of the touch element—though it could easily be outweighed by other factors, such as price and convenience.
Actually, studies have shown that online retailers might be able to benefit from tactile cues, too. There has been a series of experiments showing that people who shop for goods on a touchscreen versus a desktop perceive those goods to have more rewarding qualities.
And if I’m a manager keen to avoid impulsive, risky decisions, what should I take away from your research?
Psychologists talk about the hot, emotional state versus the cold, analytical one. Sexual cues—and those related to other rewards—put us in a hot state; they increase dopamine levels and lead us to be more impatient, impulsive, and accepting of risk. So to make good, rational decisions, you should be in a cold state. I have no data on how to induce this in people, but my instinct would be to satiate your desires: Eat, drink, have sex (in your off-hours, of course). Satisfy any craving that might encourage impulsive risk taking. If you’re a manager making a big decision, you don’t want to be tempted by anything.
Interview by Alison Beard