The Effects of Gender and Product Stereotyping on Conformity Judgements: an Experiment

ABSTRACT - Conformity within small groups has received attention by both social psychologists and marketers. However, the situational variable of sex-related products has not been investigated as a moderator for gender conformity. An experiment testing for this influence on males and females was conducted. The results, although mixed, indicate that this situational variable may contribute to group conformity.


William G. Zikmund, Donald Sciglimpaglia, William J. Lundstrom, and Ronald G. Cowell (1984) ,"The Effects of Gender and Product Stereotyping on Conformity Judgements: an Experiment", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 265-269.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 265-269


William G. Zikmund, Oklahoma State University

Donald Sciglimpaglia, San Diego State University

William J. Lundstrom, Old Dominion University

Ronald G. Cowell, Oklahoma State University


Conformity within small groups has received attention by both social psychologists and marketers. However, the situational variable of sex-related products has not been investigated as a moderator for gender conformity. An experiment testing for this influence on males and females was conducted. The results, although mixed, indicate that this situational variable may contribute to group conformity.


Reference group theory originated in 1902 with C. H. Cooley's (1902) definition: " . . . in imagination we perceive in another's mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected y it" (p. 38). William James (1890) and George H. Meat (1934) are also considered early pioneers of this concept. Since that time there has been considerable elaboration upon the concept. For example, Kelly (1968) is credited with establishing the distinction between comparative and normative reference groups. Shibutani (1955) found a wide array of uses of the reference group concept that showed apparent inconsistencies in definitions. His examination of the usage of the term revealed three different referents: "(1) groups which serve as comparison points; (2) groups to which men aspire; and (3) groups whose perspectives are assumed by the actor" (Shibutani, 1955, p. 568).

Festinger (1950; 1954) contemplated the sources of pressures to communicate as residing in a groups' need for uniformity, and the magnitude of these pressures to communicate as being functionally related to cohesiveness of the group and relevance of the issue. Deutsch and Gerard (1955) were the first to make a distinction between normative and social influence in group behavior. They defined normative social influence as "an influence to conform with the positive expectations of another" (Deutsch and Gerard, 1955, p. 630). Informational social influence was defined as an "influence to accept information obtained from another as evidence about reality" (p. 630). Further, they pointed out, it was common to find the two types of influence together.

The works of Deutsch and Gerard, and Festinger have given rise to arguments concerning the validity of solely measuring normative influence toward conformity. The problem lies in determining whether or not there are different types of definitions concerning influences toward conformity. A brief review of the literature in social psychology and consumer behavior studies an group influence is presented in the following sections. The purpose of this review is to examine what has presented in conformity research and the need to extend the exploration into the area of gender and product stereotypes.

Concepts and Experimentation in Social Psychological Research

Sherif (1972) conducted a series of classic social psychological experiments regarding group influence and found that group members' median scores on judgments tended to converge toward a common norm. It was also found that individual judgments tended to hold toward the established group norm after the individual had made judgments in the group situation. Asch (1981) further explored the processes of producing independence from a group norm as well as the conditions of submission to group pressure. A major result of Asch's study showed that one-third of the judgments made by his subjects were "errors identical with or in the direction of the distorted estimated of the majority" (Asch, 1981, p. 348). A further study involved the use of a confederate, who made a correct judgment, thus breaking the uniformity of the group. Asch found the number of erroneous answers in the direction of the majority to drastically drop in this situation. Thus, Asch concluded that independence and yielding were a joint function of the character of the stimulus situation, the character of the group forces, and the character of the individual (Asch, 1981).

Crutchfield (1955) replicated and extended Asch's work. He concluded that conformity behavior under group pressure has some important rational elements. In addition, Crutchfield was also correlated personality variables with conformity. The independent person was found to show more intellectual effectiveness, ego strength, leadership ability, and maturity of social relations, together with a conspicuous absence of inferiority feelings, rigid and excessive self-control, and authoritarian attitudes.

Schulman (1967) conducted experimental variations on the Asch conformity situation and attempted to determine what the conformity responses in the Asch experiment indicated. Schulman contended that the behavior in the Asch situation was in reality a function of three types of influence: informational conformity, normative conformity to the group, and normative conformity to the experimenter. In Schulman's study, there was shown to be a significant normative effect for males but not for females.

Concepts and Experimentation in Consumer Behavior Research

In consumer behavior, Bourne (1957) discussed the idea that reference group influence had a greater impact on individuals for certain types of products and brands. He discussed the impact of different brands and products in terms of their conspicuousness. An early investigation of the influences of informal groups by Whyte (1954) revealed normative pressures. In examining the purchases of a highly visible product, the author concluded that, "It is the group that determines when a luxury becomes a necessity" (p. 206).

Cocanongher and Bruce (1971) found that reference groups influence does not have to be on a personal basis. They concluded that socially distant groups can influence consumers if they, the consumers, held positive attitudes toward the group members on their activities. Expanding upon Bourne's and Whyte's earlier research, Bearden and Etzel (1982) examined group influence by product type. This included whether the product was a luxury versus necessity and publicly versus privately conspicuous. They found that public luxury and necessity items were more likely to be influenced by the group than-private goods and usually in the realm of value expressive and utilitarian functions that the products connoted to others. Thus reference group influence can vary by product type, conspicuousness of the product, type of influence, and numerous situational factors. How this influence is imparted is observed in the research on group conformity in buying contexts.

A study by Venkatesan (1966), marked the beginning in consumer studies concerning influences to conform within small groups. He found that the subjects in his experiments (e.g., judging the quality of suits of clothes) tended to conform to a group norm created by confederates. Meanwhile, Stafford (1966) conducted an experiment concerning informal group influence upon brand preferences. The groups were sociometrically chosen groups of women who were close friends, neighbors or relatives. Cohesiveness and leadership were compared with the degree of influence toward conformity. Stafford did not find cohesiveness to be significant in determining brand conformity but he did conclude that informal leadership was a significant factor and that the informal groups had a definite influence on their members toward conforming behavior. In another setting, Witt (1969), studied 50 groups of male college students housed in dormitories and considered two determinants of group influence: group cohesiveness and group knowledge of member behavior. He found a significant correlation between group cohesiveness and similarity of brand choice for two products (beer and after-shave lotion). A follow-up by Witt and Bruce (1970), using Witt's data, indicated that brand choice decisions vary in their susceptibility to group influence. In another study, Witt and Bruce (1972) concluded that congruence was partially explainable by group structure and Perceived product conspicuousness.

Hansen (1969) had hypothesized that when group membership undergoes changes in brand and product choices, the individual will change in the direction of the norms established in the group, and the magnitude of the change depends on group cohesiveness, affiliation, group structure, and the individual's role within the group. However , his research revealed no significant findings that indicated imitative behavior in the particular "realistic" setting.

Two recent attempts have been made in consumer behavior research to confirm Deutch and Gerard's (1955) distinction between normative and informational influence. Cohen and Golden (1972), and Burnkrant and Cousineau (1975) disagree with Venkatesan and his predecessors over the measurement of conformity. In reference to Venkatesan's study, Cohen and Golden state: "We prefer to characterize the process he studied not as 'conformity to group pressure' (as he has done) but, rather, as informational social influence" (p. 55). They found that the greatest influence occurred in a high visibility-uniformity condition.

Burnkrant and Cousineau (1975) maintained that Cohen and Golden's experiment "did not permit investigation of possible interaction effects between information and visibility" (p. 208). Their results contained unexpected elements: Uniformity of prior product evaluations and following individual judgments did not produce a direct relationship. Furthermore, "subjects in the visible condition evaluated the product significantly less in accordance with the prior evaluations of others than subjects in the anonymous condition" (p. 212). Although they used a highly artificial task, Burnkrant and Cousineau asserted that this finding tends to rule out compliance as a significant factor in product evaluation.

Reference group influence and group conformity are thus interrelated concepts. However, we do not know how the composition of the groups, themselves, may influence the outcome of behavior. In the next section, a review of gender conformity behavior is provided as background for the research hypotheses tested in this paper.

Conformity as a Function of Gender

While consumer research has focused on gender as a predictor variable in adoption of feminine products (Morris and Cundiff, 1971; Fry, 1971) and identifying consumption cues (Belk, Bahn and Mayer, 1982), few, if any, studies have examined differences in conformity behavior between males and females. Consumer research studies have attempted to establish that there is conformity in small groups within consumer behavioral context.

In contrast, social psychologists have studied gender conformity and suggest there is greater tendency for females to conform to group norms than their male counterparts. For instance, Hollander and Julian (1965), using Crutchfield's (1955) methodology is assessing conformity, found differences in the behavior of the sexes confirming higher female conformity within groups. Similarly, Allen and Crutchfield (1963), Crowne and Liverant (1963), Carrigan and Julian (1966) and Endler (1966) have reported evidence that females tend to conform more than males.

The social psychological research on female conformity is not without contrary reports. Studies by Allen and Levine (1969), Goldberg (1974), and Hoffman and Maier (1966) show no conclusive support that females conform more than males. Sistrunk and McDavid (1971) have proposed an explanation to this controversy. They believe that gender differences in conformity may be a function of sex-oriented tasks that have been employed in the experiments with certain tasks being more relevant to one sex than the other.


Based upon the literature presented here, there appears to be a void in the study of male versus female conformity in consumer decision-making situations. While Sims (1971) has studied the effect of race and conformity, research on gender conformity is lacking in marketing, especially as it relates to gender-specific goods. Thus, the basic thrust of the present study was to explore how sexually bound products may influence conformity of females and males.

In summarizing the literature, several conclusions can be drawn. First, individuals usually conform to the group norm. Second, culturally, females have a general tendency to conform more than males, however, referent influence may be product specific and expertise related. That is, influence of referents is related to their specific knowledge about certain types of products. For example, females are expected to know more about female types of products and, thus, be judged the "expert" for these goods. The converse of this would be true for male-related items. Using the above observations, a set of hypotheses were developed for this study.

Specifically, the experiment was designed to evaluate the following hypotheses:

H1. In a consumer decision-making situation where no objective standards are present, individuals who are exposed to a uniform group norm will tend to conform to that norm.

H2. Females will tend to exhibit a higher degree of conformity than males when both make a judgmental decision about a male-oriented product.

H3. Males will tend to exhibit a higher degree of conformity than females when both make a judgmental decision about a female-oriented product.

H4. Females will tent to exhibit a higher degree of conformity than males when both make a judgmental decision about a neutral product.


The experimental subjects consisted of 52 female and 60 male university students. In addition, 87 males and females were used in control groups. All subjects were tested in dormitories and apartments; the methodology used was that employed by Venkatesan (1966).

The face-to-face groups consisted of three persons, two of whom were confederates of the experimenter. All participants were at least acquaintances of one another. The groups were composed of the same sex-all male groups were compared against all female groups. In the test groups, all three individuals were instructed to publicly announce their decisions concerning the evaluations of five "different" brands of products, with the subjects being the last to respond in each instance. They were asked to choose the best brand of each product.

In the control groups, the individuals indicated their choices on paper. Verbal instructions were given by the experimenter as in the test groups and, in addition, the subjects were instructed not to communicate their choices to others within the group.

The subjects were tested on their evaluation of three different consumer products. These three products consisted of a feminine product (panty hose), a masculine product (tire tread), and finally a neutral product (cola soft drink). These were selected in a pretest (N = 50) in which 94% of respondents rated colas as neither masculine nor feminine, 100% rated panty hose as feminine and 78% rated tire tread as masculine. In addition, the subjects also judged two "dummy" products (typing paper and toilet tissue). These were included in order to help camouflage the experiment and avoid arousal of suspicion due to unanimous decisions by the confederates on the critical products.

The order was as follows:

l. Typing paper - Neutral, different judgments by the confederates, discernible differences among the brands.

2. Cola* - Neutral, unanimous judgments by the confederates, 3 identical "brands" (unknown to the subject).

3. Toilet Tissue - Neutral, different judgments by the discernible differences among the brands.

4. Tire Tread* - Masculine, unanimous judgment by the confederates, 3 identical "brands" (unknown to subject).

5. Panty Hose* - Feminine, unanimous judgment by the confederates, 3 identical "brands" (unknown to subject).

*Critical test (the three critical products were rotated in their order of presentation).

The three pairs of panty hose used were the same size, color, style, and brand. The three different brands of tires were in fact cut from the same tire. The colas were of the same brand poured from three identical bottles that were wrapped. There were in actuality three different brands of typing paper and toilet tissue with distinguishable differences. All the items for the products were rotated under letter labels.


A Chi-square analysis of the control group revealed no significant deviations from a chance distribution at the .05 level. The distribution of selections are presented in Table l. Analysis was conducted by brands on the rows.



Responses by the subjects that matched the response given by the confederates on the three critical tests were considered to be conforming responses. Therefore any other responses were considered measures of non-yielding. The subjects were considered to be influenced by pressures to conform if the proportion of conforming responses were significantly greater than one-third. The distribution of choices for the conformity conditions is shown in Table 2.



A Z test between the control and experimental groups revealed support for the first hypothesis. The results for males were: colas, Z = 1.374; panty hose, Z = 2.745; tire tread, Z = 3.017. Only the test of males judging cola did not prove to be significant (p c 0.05). Female test groups showed significant measures of conformity for all three products: cola, Z = 4.027; panty hose, Z = 3.136- tire tread, Z = 5.49. A two-tailed Z-test found no differences between the products for males and for females.

Mixed results were found in the analysis of the data for hypotheses 2, 3, and 4. A Z-test was again used to Compare the number of conforming responses of males vs. females for each product. The data yielded the following figures: cola, Z = 1.896; panty hose, Z = -.401; tire tread, Z = 1.892. Significant differences (p < 0.05) existed between the responses of males and females for cola and tire treat, but not for panty hose. Thus, there was support for hypotheses 2 and 4, but not for hypotheses 3.

Contrary to expectations, males did not conform more than females on the feminine item. Although the sample size is small, the results suggest that there may not be a reverse relationship between males and females on the evaluation of masculine and feminine products. Instead, the factor of a feminine product may increase the level of male conformity to the point where no differences exist between males and females--in contrast to the factor of neutral and masculine products.

An explanation for the lack of a significant number of conforming responses by males when judging cola could involve the fact that there was a variety of products to evaluate. If Crutchfield (1955) was correct in his evaluation of males, the masculine role of independence of thought described should surface where an opportunity appears. The evaluation of cola should offer that opportunity in comparison to the other products in the experiment. (However, the cola test in this experiment relied on subjects' memory of taste. Due to time constraints, each tasted A, then B, then C, then the confederates announced their decisions followed by the subject). Also, it might be more difficult for individuals to disagree with the others in the group when identical pieces of tire tread and pairs of panty hose are physically before them.


An overall appraisal of the experiment shows evidence of the tendency for females to conform to a greater extent than do males, although the evidence is not strong. The two hypotheses predicting a greater degree of conformity for females were supported by the data on cola and tire tread, whereas the hypothesis predicting a greater degree of male conformity was not evidenced by the panty hose results. The fact that the number of male conforming responses on cola was not significantly greater than one-third, whereas the number of female responses was greater than one-third, also tends to support the claim of a higher degree of female conformity.


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William G. Zikmund, Oklahoma State University
Donald Sciglimpaglia, San Diego State University
William J. Lundstrom, Old Dominion University
Ronald G. Cowell, Oklahoma State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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