Gender Differences in Adolescent Compulsive Consumption

F. Robert Shoaf, New York University
Joan Scattone, New York University
Maureen Morrin, Boston University
Durairaj Maheswaran, New York University
[ to cite ]:
F. Robert Shoaf, Joan Scattone, Maureen Morrin, and Durairaj Maheswaran (1995) ,"Gender Differences in Adolescent Compulsive Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 500-504.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 500-504


F. Robert Shoaf, New York University

Joan Scattone, New York University

Maureen Morrin, Boston University

Durairaj Maheswaran, New York University


Compulsive consumption involves behaviors that are very difficult to control through reason and willpower and are often associated with negative consequences (Hirschman 1992). Several types of compulsive consumption, such as smoking, drinking, and drug use, begin during the adolescent years. For example, the average age when smoking begins is 14.5 years (Roberts and Watson 1994). Yet, relatively little empirical research has addressed the issue of compulsive consumption among adolescents.

A considerable amount of research in the field of health psychology has been devoted to uncovering various "risk factors" associated with the onset of adolescent use of "gateway" drugs such as tobacco and alcohol as well as illicit drugs such as marijuana. These studies generally assess the degree of correlation between drug use and such developmental factors as attachment to parents or exposure to the behaviors of peers (Bailey and Hubbard 1990, 1991).

Social influences such as peer pressure have long been considered key factors in models of adolescent substance use (Graham, Marks, and Hansen 1991). Brown, Clasen and Eicher (1986) suggest that an individual manifests his or her need for affiliation with peers by conforming to group norms and that a group is actually strengthened when conformity pressures are exerted. While researchers have attempted to uncover various risk factors associated with drug use among adolescents, such as peer pressure, little research has been devoted to examining the cognitive processes underlying adolescents' decisions to conform with their peers. Investigation in this area would likely aid our understanding of why some adolescents succumb to peer pressure while others do not, and, perhaps more importantly, provide direction regarding how to develop more effective communication strategies to "demarket" the use of drugs.


Attribution theory deals with how people arrive at explanations or make causal inferences for various behaviors and attitudes (see Folkes 1988 for a review). In the context of group behavior, attribution theory suggests that individuals attempt to explain differences between their behavior or opinions and those demonstrated by their peer group. An individual's decision regarding whether or not to conform to group behavior is partly based on his or her ability to generate plausible explanations for the group's behavior.

Rose, Bearden and Teel (1992) examined the relationship between adolescents' attributional processing styles and their willingness to conform to group pressure to smoke marijuana. They investigated the types of causal reasoning adolescents tended to engage in after being exposed to a hypothetical situation involving marijuana use by their peers. The authors found that adolescents who exhibited a higher level of attributional thinking were less likely to conform to group behavior.

The researchers also examined the types of attributions that adolescents were likely to make in such a situation. They grouped attributions into two types: those based on an internal locus of causality and those based on an external locus of causality. Internal locus of causality attributions focused on personal characteristics and included: No fear of the law, Desire to get high, and No health concerns. External locus of causality attributions focused on situational factors and included: Peer pressure, Desire to look cool, and Desire to fit in. Rose et al. found that locus of causality was indeed correlated with intention to conform. Specifically, adolescents who were more likely to attribute drug use to situational causes, that is, exhibited an external locus of causality, were less likely to state they would conform with the group's marijuana smoking behavior. Rose et al.(1992) speculated that adolescents exhibiting an internal locus of causality may be more likely to conform as a result of perceived group attractiveness. Internal (vs external) attributions may be perceived more favorably, which, in turn, enhances a group's attractiveness resulting in higher levels of conformity.

The present study extends the findings of Rose et al. by examining an additional factor believed to provide added insight into the types of attributional thinking engaged in by adolescents, namely, the effect of gender on cognitive processing style.


Prior consumer research has shown that males and females process information differently (Meyers-Levy 1989). Whereas females tend to engage in a fairly high level of elaboration of messages, males' cognitive processing style is more schematic or thematic (Meyers-Levy and Maheswaran 1991). One extension of this finding is whether males and females are also likely to differ in their attributional thinking. It is likely that females who have been found to cognitively process messages to a greater extent than males, may engage in higher levels of attributional thinking when confronted with a group conformity situation.

Research has also shown that males and females tend to pursue different types of goals according to their sex roles (Meyers-Levy 1988; Bakan 1966; Carlson 1971, 1972). Males tend to pursue goals that have personal consequences: a "self" focus. Females tend to pursue goals related to both themselves and to others: a "self and other" focus. We examined whether a similar difference between the sexes would emerge in terms of locus of causality of attributional thoughts. Since females have been found to focus on both "self and other" (vs. only "self"), we suggest that female adolescents may exhibit a higher tendency to engage in attributional thinking with an external locus of causality, that is, which takes into account situational influences such as the opinions of others, more than male adolescents.


Based on the above discussion, we examined the possibility that gender differences in cognitive processing styles would emerge in the context of adolescent attributional thinking in a group conformity situation. The following hypotheses were investigated in the present research. Based on research in gender differences, H1 and H2 are proposed.

H1: Female adolescents will exhibit a higher tendency to engage in attributional thinking than male adolescents.

H2: The impact of attributional thinking (with either an external or internal locus of causality) on intentions to conform with group behavior will be higher for females than for males.



Next, given the results of Rose et al. (1992), which suggest that intention to conform is negatively correlated with the level of attributional thinking, H3, H4 and H5 are predicted.

H3: Female adolescents will exhibit a lower intention to conform with group behavior than male adolescents.

Given the tendency of females to be motivated by a "self and other" focus, compared to males' tendency to focus on "self' goals, we predict:

H4: Female adolescents will exhibit a higher tendency to exhibit attributional thinking involving an external locus of control than male adolescents.

H5: Female adolescents will exhibit a lower tendency to exhibit attributional thinking involving an internal locus of control than male adolescents.


One hundred and thirty-five high school students (75 males and 60 females) participated in the study in a familiar classroom setting. The procedure and dependent measures were identical to the Rose et al. (1992) study. Subjects were given a booklet in which they were instructed to imagine that they were at a party where they were offered marijuana by three of their friends who were smoking. After reading the scenario, subjects completed a thought-listing task and responded to a series of questions regarding the likelihood that they would smoke the marijuana and the plausibility of various potential reasons for their friends' drug use.

Three internal locus of causality and three external locus of causality reasons for the group's behavior were provided. The internal explanations were: "Your friends are smoking marijuana because they do not mind damaging their health", "Your friends are smoking marijuana because they want to get high", and "Your friends are smoking marijuana because they aren't afraid of getting in trouble with the law". The external explanations were: "Your friends are smoking marijuana because they feel pressure from their friends", "Your friends are smoking marijuana because they want to look "cool" to impress their friends", "Your friends are smoking marijuana because they want to"fit in" with their friends". Subjects judged the plausibility of these explanations by indicating the likelihood, on a nine-point scale anchored by extremely unlikely and extremely likely, that the group's behavior resulted from each of the six causes. They also reported the effect each of these attributions would have on their own conformity by indicating the degree to which each explanation would make them more or less likely to smoke marijuana. Finally, subjects were asked to judge the locus of causality for the group's behavior by indicating the extent to which the reason(s) for their friend's smoking was "completely internal" versus "completely external".


We examined the parallel between our findings and Rose et al. (1992) results. Our major findings converged. Rose et al. (1992) found that the three external attribution explanations provided were negatively correlated with intentions. We found similar significant negative relationships for two of the three external attributions (peer pressure and look cool) and directional support for the third (fit in). These findings suggest that when external attributions were likely, they diminished the intention to smoke marijuana. We also replicated the positive correlations with intentions for the two internal attributions, health concerns and getting high. However, these correlations were not significant. Finally, the findings were inconclusive on the third internal attribution, no fear of the law, with a correlation of -.018 for our study and a correlation of.056 for the Rose et al (1992) study. In both the studies these correlations were not significant.

In addition, consistent with the results found by Rose et al. (1992), subjects reported a lower likelihood to conform when different types of attributions were presented as a potential reason for their friends' drug use. In other words, any explanation for the group's behavior had the effect of diminishing intended conformity (Table 1). Also, we found directional but non-significant support for the negative correlation between subjects' perceived locus of causality for the group's behavior and their intentions to conform with the group, suggesting an inverse relationship between intentions and the tendency to make external attributions (r=-08).




To test our gender related hypotheses, we examined the subjects' attributional thinking and their relationships with intentions to conform by gender. As stated in our first hypothesis, we expected females to display a higher tendency to engage in attributional thinking than males. We examined females' and males' self reports of their tendency to engage in attributional thinking and did not find evidence of gender differences (Ms= 4.98 and 4.49, respectively). Thus, H1 was not supported.

H2 posited that the presence of attributional thinking would have a greater impact on intentions to conform for females than males and this should hold for both internal and external attributions. In accord, females expressed a greater reduction in conformity than did males when presented with any of the six attributions. A comparison of values for the Effect of Internal (a composite score of the effects of no health concerns and no fear of the law) indicated that females experienced a greater reduction in intended conformity when confronted with attributions that were internal in nature than did males (t=2.81, p <01) [Degrees of freedom = (1, 133) for all t-tests on gender.]. Similarly, females reported a greater reduction in intentions to conform when presented with attributions that were external (a composite score of the effect of the three external attributions) in nature (t=2.06, p<05). Specifically, the effects on conformity of "looking cool", "no concerns about health" and "no fear of legal trouble" were significantly higher for females than males (t= 2.25, 2.92, 2.31, respectively; ps<05). Gender differences in the effect of "fitting in" approached significance (t=1.70, p<10), whereas differences yielded by "peer pressure" and "desire to get high" were directionally consistent (Table 2).

H3 posited that females would exhibit lower intentions to conform than males. In accord, females' self-reports of intentions to conform were weaker than males' (Ms=2.15 vs. 3.04; t=1.98, p<05). This is consistent with other research that has found females less willing to accede to antisocial peer pressures (Berndt 1979; Brown, Clasen and Eicher 1986).

Rose et a]. (1992) contend that the type, as well as the extent, of attributional thinking may impact intentions to conform with the group's drug use. Although the extent of attributional thinking did not differ for our male and female subjects, their intentions to conform were different. H4 and H5 examined the possibility that the type of attributions (external vs. internal) that females make may contribute to the differences in intention to conform.

H4 suggested that the weaker intentions to conform reported by females may be attributed to a slightly greater likelihood to make external attributions for the group's behavior. A comparison of their scores on External [External is a composite average of subjects' ratings of the plausibility of the three external attributions.] indicated that females' perceptions of external attributions as plausible explanations for the group's drug use were somewhat stronger than males' (means=6.77 and 6.32, respectively). However, this difference was not statistically significant, thus lends only directional support for H4. Specifically, the effects on (he likelihood to attribute the group's behavior to peer pressure approached significance (Ms=6.61 vs.5.88,t=-1.66,p<10). While females were more likely than males to attribute the drug use to a desire to look cool (Ms= 6.63 vs. 6.32) or a desire to fit in with the group (Ms.= 7.07 vs. 6.77), these differences were not statistically significant (Table 2).

H5 suggested that females' lower level of intended conformity may also be explained by their tendency to be less likely than males to attribute the group's behavior to internal factors. A comparison of the scores for Internal [Internal is a composite average of subjects' ratings of the plausibility of two of the three internal attributions: no concerns about one's health and no fear of getting into legal trouble.] indicated females were less likely to view internal attributions as plausible explanations (t=2.37, p<05), thus providing support for H5. Specifically, females were significantly less likely to attribute the group's behavior to a lack of concern about getting into trouble with the law (t=3.35, p <001). However, both females and males perceived the desire to get high as a strong potential motivator of the group's behavior (Ms=6.65 vs. 6.82), and the lack of concern for their health (Ms=4.14 vs. 4.40) as a relatively weak explanation for their friends' behavior.

We also found that females were less likely than males to think their friends outside the group would approve of their smoking the marijuana (t=2.69, p<01). In addition, a positive correlation (r=.30, p=.05) was found between females' perceptions of whether their friends outside the group would approve and their own intentions to conform. No correlation was found between these measures for males.


Our findings revealed an interesting pattern of differences in the attributional thinking based on gender. While males and females do not differ in the amount of attributional thinking, they do considerably differ in their locus of attributional thinking. We also found that women in general are more externally focused whereas males are internally focused.

Our female subjects' heightened sensitivity to the opinions of their friends is consistent with other findings that -adolescent females are more concerned with maintaining friendships than are adolescent males (Douvan and Adelson 1969). Similarly, teenage females are more likely to cite peer approval or friendship issues as likely causes for acquiescence with another teen's request to engage in misconduct, and are more likely to predict peer disapproval and negative consequences to the friendship upon refusing another teen's request to engage in misconduct (Pearl, Bryan and Hersog 1990).

Perhaps females' greater proclivity toward maintaining friendships and their perceptions regarding the impact of peer approval and disapproval on these friendships leads to their development of a more external orientation regarding the motivations for their own behavior and that of their peers. Such a tendency to view conforming behavior as externally motivated may be manifested in a stronger tendency to exhibit external attributions and a weaker tendency to exhibit internal attributions for such behavior. As evidenced by our own results and those found by Rose et al. (1992), external attributions tend to have a greater diminishing impact on intentions to conform with a group's illicit drug use. Females' greater tendency to exhibit external locus of causality attributions may in turn lead to their weaker intentions to conform.

Males and females have shown differences in their likelihood to conform with a group's use of drugs and the types of attributions they make to explain the group's behavior. Understanding these differences is important as there may be implications for the type of anti-drug campaigns that may be most effective for each of the genders. For instance, a campaign targeted at teenage girls might focus on peer approval of saying no to drugs and peer disapproval of drug use. A more effective campaign for males might stress the importance of being an individual by not succumbing to peer pressure and point out that using drugs is not "cool". Also, male adolescents, for example, might be less likely to engage in detailed processing of anti -drug advertising messages (unless elements such as incongruent information are included to induce such processing; see Meyers-Levy and Maheswaran 1991). Additional research is needed to further explore these issues and implications for preventive and intervention programs.


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