Thursday, 22 October 2015

People prefer food that comes in sexist packaging

Putting unhealthy food in macho masculine packaging, or healthy food in feminine-themed packaging, makes it taste nicer, and people are willing to pay more for it. That's according to a new study published in Social Psychology which finds that, at least in the US, cultural beliefs about gender and food are so entrenched that people actually prefer food that's packaged in an apparently sexist way.

While there is in fact some evidence that men on average do prefer naughtier dinner options like red meat and that women more often prefer fruit and veg, it is of course ridiculously presumptuous to assume that all men prefer fattening food and that all women prefer slimming food. And yet on some level, this new research suggests food packaged according to gender stereotypes is more appealing, possibly because it fits our implicit understanding of the world, which makes it easier for us to process it mentally (other related research has shown that we prefer things that we can process fluently, even down to easier-to-read font).

Luke Zhu and his colleagues made their finding by asking participants (58 men and 82 women) at a local fair to taste-test a blueberry muffin. Every participant tasted the exact same kind of muffin, but it was packaged in different ways for different participants. When it was labelled as a "Mega Muffin" (supposedly conveying an unhealthy variety) and its packaging was masculine (depicting men playing football) both men and women tended to rate the muffin as tastier, and they were willing to pay more for it, as compared with when the Mega Muffin was in stereotypically feminine packaging, with a woman ballet dancer depicted in the background. Similarly, participants' ratings of the muffin were more positive if it was labelled as a Health Muffin and its packaging was feminine as opposed to masculine.

If you're thinking that there's something ridiculously retro about the implied sexism in these findings, you'll be heartened to know that in another experiment the researchers showed that if the genderered packaging was taken too far, the results actually switched. With the Mega Muffin labelled as "The Muffin For Real Men" alongside the same football imagery used previously, participants were on average willing to pay less for it than when the packaging contained the football imagery only.

In another experiment, Zhu and his team changed tack to look at whether reminders of gender could affect people's food preferences in line with the gender stereotypes around food. Participants completed a word puzzle task that involved descrambling seven lists of words into coherent sentences. When the word lists each contained a word pertaining to masculinity (such as men or hunting) male and female participants subsequently expressed food preferences that were more stereotypically male (for example, they said they'd prefer fried chicken over baked chicken) and said that they had weaker intentions to eat more healthily in the future. When the word lists contained a feminine-related word, the effects worked in the other direction, prompting a preference for healthy food and plans to eat more healthily in the future.

The researchers said they'd shown the "power of cultural stereotypes to implicitly shape food preferences" and they believe their findings have real-life implications for public health policy. The idea of pandering to gender stereotypes may make some people uncomfortable, but if these effects can be replicated in future research, the implication, at least in the short term, is that healthy food products are likely to appeal to more people, whether male or female, if they are packaged in a "feminine" way. Longer term of course, it seems we need to find a way to shift our collective attitudes to see healthy eating as something all sensible people are into, regardless of their gender.


Zhu, L., Brescoll, V., Newman, G., & Uhlmann, E. (2015). Macho Nachos Social Psychology, 46 (4), 182-196 DOI: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000226

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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