Art of the deal

More isn't necessarily better when it comes to men making decisions together, especially if you want a compromise. That's according to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research that finds compromise almost always occurs among two decision makers when one or both are female, but hardly ever when the pair of decision makers are male. The findings could be pertinent to marketers, managers, and consumers alike, the researchers say.

Hristina Nikolova
Hristina Nikolova (Lee Pellegrini)

"When men are in the presence of other men, they feel the need to prove their masculinity," says co-researcher Hristina Nikolova, the Coughlin Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor of Marketing at Boston College's Carroll School of Management. "Both tend to push away from the compromise option because it is consistent with feminine norms. On the other hand, extremism is a more masculine trait, so that's why both male partners tend to prefer an extreme option when making decisions together."

Titled "Men and the Middle: Gender Differences in Dyadic Compromise Effects," the study was co-authored by Cait Lamberton, associate professor of marketing at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. While previous research has examined the compromise effect—the tendency to choose the middle option in a choice set—using single individuals, this is the first research to examine how joint decision-making contexts change consumers' preferences for the compromise option.

The decisions people make in pairs may be very different than those they make alone, depending on the others involved, according to the study. Classic compromise effects—the 'goldilocks effect,' or 'extremeness aversion,' that favor a middle-of-the road choice—may not emerge in all joint consumption decisions, the researchers say.

Nikolova and Lamberton conducted four experiments with 1,204 students at two U.S universities, and a fifth experiment using 673 online participants. The studies involved different pairs—a man and woman, two women, and two men—making decisions on purchases of items including printers, toothpaste, flashlights, tires, hotels, headphones, and different sizes and shapes of grills; as well as on issues such as what prizes to seek in a lottery and whether to buy risky or safe stocks with corresponding high and low returns.

"No matter what the product is, we see the same effects," says Nikolova. "The compromise effect basically emerges in any pair when there is a woman. However, surprisingly, when you have men choosing together, they actually tend to push away from the compromise option and select one of the extreme options. Say two men are choosing a car, and the cars they are considering differ on safety and fuel efficiency. They will either go for the safest car or the one that offers them the most fuel efficiency, but they won't choose an option that offers a little of both." In contrast, individuals and mixed-gender and female-female pairs will likely go for the middle option since it seems reasonable and is easily justified.

When making decisions together, men take actions that are maximally different from feminine norms, which prioritize moderation, and maximally similar to masculine norms, which prioritize extremity, according to the report. Because the female presence makes masculinity obvious in a male-female pairing, however, the researchers observed compromise behavior consistent with that of individual decision makers and of pairs in which both decision makers are women.

In contrast to men, however, women act the same together as they would alone because they don't need to prove anything in front of other women, Nikolova said. "Womanhood is not precarious and does not need the same level of public defense as manhood. That's why we observe the compromise effect in the joint decisions of two female partners."

The researchers also found that compromise is criticized among men, but embraced by women.

"Only men judge other men harshly when they suggest the compromise option to a male partner," said Nikolova. "It doesn't happen when a man suggests the compromise option to a female partner or when women suggest the compromise option, so it's really specific to men dealing with other men."

Nikolova believes the findings have implications across the business spectrum, since the compromise effect is a robust phenomenon often used to manage assortments, position products, and drive sales. The findings of the study suggest that retailers and marketers in particular should be aware of the gender composition of the joint decision-making pairs they might be targeting.

"For instance, marketers should be aware of the fact that when two men make decisions together, they are more likely to choose one of the extreme options. So if a company wants to push sales toward a particular option, and expects the target customers to primarily be men making decisions together, then it's better to make the particular option an extreme option rather than a middle alternative."

If a father and a son are purchasing the first car for the son together, she said, it would be better for the sales person to make the particular car which he or she wants to sell (usually the most profitable one) an extreme option in the offered choice set (e.g., the one with the most fuel efficiency, the best interior design, or the highest horsepower). In contrast, if a male/female couple or a mother and a daughter are shopping together, it would be best to make that option a middle alternative in the choice set by adding other alternatives that offer less or more of the particular attribute.

Furthermore, Nikolova says if an organization wants more middle ground decisions made, it's critical to include a woman in the decision-making pair. In contrast, if a manager wants to "nudge" more all-or-nothing decisions, it is better to entrust them to two men.

As for consumers, it's important for male consumers to consider that what they might buy when alone could differ from what they would choose with another man.

"What we're finding is when men have to choose alone, most select the compromise option," says Nikolova.  "But when they have to make the decision with another man, they tend to choose one of the extreme options," even if that would not be their preference when choosing alone. "It's important for male consumers to be aware of this when making decisions with other people, since the drive to prove their masculinity might lead them to make decisions that they might not enjoy later."

—Sean Hennessey | News & Public Affairs