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BPS Occupational Digest
Work and occupational

Consumers behave differently when they suspect staff will stereotype them

New research.

31 March 2011

By Alex Fradera

Organisations recognise that people respond to stereotypes, and make merry use of them in their marketing strategies and advertising schemes. But we also respond to being stereotyped by others, an experience called 'stereotype threat' which can affect our feelings and behaviour. Do organisations recognise this too?

If not, they'd be advised to check out an upcoming article in the Journal of Consumer Research, where Kyoungmi Lee and colleagues explore the phenomenon. Their series of experiments asked male and female participants to evaluate hypothetical purchases of technical services and goods, reasoning that these purchases could be influenced by the stereotype that women fare poorly in the so-called STEM domains: science, technology, engineering and maths.

In their first two experiments, half the participants were cued for stereotype threat. The first experiment involved a financial service product, and cued the STEM threat using mathematical symbols inserted into the promotional materials they were asked to evaluate. At the start of the second experiment, meanwhile, participants were simply asked to record their gender, an act shown previously to be sufficient to alert the risk of stereotype threat.

The promotional materials depicted the service providers as either male or female, using photographs or more elegantly in the second study - evaluating car repair services - by amending the hairdo on an otherwise identical cartoon mechanic. The investigators found that in both experiments female participants were significantly less prepared to purchase when the service providers were male, but only when the stereotype threat was cued.

In experiments one and two, female participants in the stereotype threat conditions had rated their anxiety as slightly higher, and accounting for anxiety levels seemed to explain the change in purchasing behaviour. If so, then lowering anxiety should erode the effect. The investigators employed vanilla scent as their means of chilling consumers out.

In this study all participants were cued for the threat through recording their gender before evaluating a potential car purchase. Under normal conditions, the threat effect duly emerged, but for those female participants whose study materials were infused with vanilla scent, no difference in purchasing emerged: they were just as happy to buy a car from a man.

Gender discrimination really does happen in the marketplace, so it makes sense for people to be wary. Organisations ought to be mindful of unnecessarily triggering stereotype threat, whether by unbalanced promotional material or clumsy service providers. We can also see another good reason for diversity in workforces: it gives customers more opportunities to avoid any perceived stereotyping. Your organisation really may be a stereotype-free zone, but you can hardly blame a customer for wondering.

Lee K, Kim H, & Vohs KD (2011). Stereotype Threat in the Marketplace: Consumer Anxiety and Purchase Intentions.  Journal of Consumer Research(38) : 10.1086/659315