He asked one group of men and women to write about shopping and another control group wrote about a different topic. Then, in a supposedly unrelated test, he had both groups make unrelated choices, like what kind of route they would choose if they had to make a cross-country trip for a friend.
The women who had written about shopping chose the scenic route, or possibility-driven option, whereas thoughts of shopping influenced men in the opposite way.
"Men were more likely to choose these purpose-driven options — taking the direct route on a cross country trip," Wheeler says.
But men and women in the control groups did not show these results.
"Previous research has shown that people tend to respond pretty similarly when you activate things that they have shared associations with," Wheeler says.
But his study shows that "this can work in different ways for different people depending on the types of associations they have with the object. And so just thinking about clothes shopping doesn't make everyone act in exactly the same way. In fact it makes men and women act in exactly the opposite ways."
"This might suggest one reason why even a though a lot of behavior is changed without our intention or awareness, you still observe such heterogeneity of behavior in your every day world."
He adds, "This has important implications because often times we make long term decisions that are based upon things that are activated in our mind at that moment."
Wheeler says that before we make a big decision we might consider putting ourselves in an environment with less possibility of bias. But he says that's easier said than done because many of the associations we have to a stimulus are subconscious.
Publication: Journal of Consumer Research, October 2007.
Co-Author: Jonan Berger, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Study funded by: Stanford Graduate School of Business