Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

compromise effect

Another Reason For Female Executives

Which gender norms should we adopt?

Which gender norms should we adopt?

Want to get stuff done? You may need to compromise occasionally. Who’s better at that? Who do you think?

A recent study in the Journal Of Consumer Research (abstract here; pdf here) suggests that men working with men tend not to compromise. By contrast, men working with women or women working with women are more likely to find the middle ground.

The article, by Hristina Nikolova and Cait Lamberton – professors at Boston College and the University of Pittsburgh respectively — focuses on consumer behavior and is probably most relevant to marketing strategists. But I wonder if it doesn’t have much broader implications as well.

The study revolves around the compromise effect, which is well understood in marketing circles. Let’s say that you want to buy a car and you have two decision criteria: efficiency and prestige. Car X is clearly better on efficiency and OK on prestige. Car Y is clearly better on prestige and OK on efficiency. Car Y is also more expensive than Car X.

Which one do you buy? It’s a tough choice. So the salesperson introduces the even more expensive Car Z, which is even better on prestige than Car Y. Now Car Y is the compromise choice – it’s OK on efficiency and pretty good on prestige. With three choices available, Car Y is not the top of the line on either criterion but it’s acceptable on both criteria. The compromise effect suggests that you’ll buy Car Y.

The compromise effect has been demonstrated in any number of studies. Indeed, it’s why restaurants often add a very high-priced item to their menus. The item probably doesn’t sell very often but it makes everything else look more reasonable.

But what if you’re making the decision with another person? This hasn’t been studied before and Nikolova and Lamberton focus their attention on decisions made by two people acting together (also known as dyads). The authors looked at three different dyads:

  • Male/male
  • Female/male
  • Female/female

Under five different conditions, Nikolova and Lamberton found essentially the same results. First, the compromise effect seems to work “normally” with female/female and female/male dyads. Second, the compromise effect has much less impact on male/male dyads. Such dyads tend to move toward one of the extremes – either Car X or Car Z in our example.

Why would this be? The authors suggest that it has to do with gender norms coupled with the act of being observed. They write, “Normative beliefs about women’s behavior suggest that women should be balanced, compassionate, conciliatory, accommodating, and willing to compromise….” Male gender norms, on the other hand require, “…men in social situations to be maximizers, assertive, dominant, active, and self-confident; their decisions should show leadership, … high levels of commitment … and decisiveness….”

For both genders, being observed influences the degree to which an individual adheres to the gender norms. If you know you’re being observed – and/or that you will need to defend your choice later – you’re more likely to behave according to your gender norm. Interestingly, men working with women tend to adopt more of the female gender norms.

Nikolova and Lamberton focus exclusively on consumer choice but I wonder if the same dynamic doesn’t apply in many other decision-making situations as well. Men may be willing to compromise but they don’t want to be seen as compromisers. If you need to compromise to get something done, it helps to add a woman into the mix.

Indeed, I was struck by the fact that the same day I discovered the Nikolova-Lamberton article, I also read about Tim Huelskamp, a Republican congressman from western Kansas. According to the New York Times, Huelskamp is a “hardline conservative member of the Freedom Caucus” who “quickly earned a reputation for frustrating Republican leaders…” after he was elected in 2010. Yesterday, a more moderate challenger defeated Huelskamp in the Republican primary. As one voter noted, ““I don’t mind [Huelskamp’s] independent voice, but you’ve got to figure out how to work with people.” Perhaps the good people of Kansas should elect a woman to replace him.

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