He thought, she bought: males and females activate different brain regions when shopping online

Study finds differences in neural activity between males and females when viewing e-commerce websites.

The advent of the internet led the corporate world to realize the huge potential of e-commerce and online marketing. The rapid growth of of e-commerce, the reaction of people to e-commerce websites, and how those websites influence online buying decisions has become an issue of paramount importance to successful marketing.

Gender focus on perception of e-commerce websites

This led to multiple studies on gender-related responses to the aesthetics, usefulness, ease of use and purchase intentions, upon perceiving e-commerce websites. Some concluded that men and women view the issues in different ways. For instance, men may focus on the usefulness of a website, while an aesthetically designed website or the ease of navigating web pages may compel a woman to buy. However, other studies did not find any noteworthy disparity between the reaction of males and females when viewing e-commerce websites.

These inconsistent findings led to a situation where researchers and designers were confused whether gender-related differences really existed when viewing e-commerce websites. And it was crucial knowledge to design compelling e-commerce websites like MoissaniteCo.

New research approach through fNIRS

Therefore, recently, researchers at the University of Duisburg-Essen, one of the youngest and largest universities in Germany, engaged in a study, to further investigate these conflicting findings, and to see if a different approach could bring more definitive conclusions to the issue.

Therefore, apart from two online surveys, the researchers used the neuroimaging method of functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to explore possible gender-related differences.

Invented by Professor Frans F. Jöbsis at the Duke University in North Carolina, fNIRS is a relatively inexpensive, portable, non-invasive, brain imaging technology that records changes in the blood flow to the brain with low levels of non-ionizing light, through optical sensors placed on the scalp surface. This enables neuroimaging experiments on people while they are engaged in various tasks. The neural activity levels are measured by observing oxygenated blood (HbO) and deoxygenated blood (HbR) flows to the brain. Increased HbO to any region of the brain indicates neural activation and increased HbR indicates neural deactivation.

So, the research study observed the neurological processes of a group of Germans as they viewed three selected German e-commerce websites, Computeruniverse, Digitalo, and PNShop. The websites had comparable product ranges and were relatively unknown to the study participants, to prevent brand-related biases. A digital camera was pre-selected as the target product for the neuroimaging study, for as well as for the two surveys, as a camera provides a functional rather than a sensuous experience, and therefore was unlikely to induce emotional gender-specific responses. Besides, researchers in earlier studies had also used digital cameras as target products.

Results of the two surveys

The two Duisburg-Essen surveys found that men and women showed no significant differences in perceiving the design and usability of the three e-commerce sites.

Therefore, the study rejected the assumption that women focus more on visual design than men.

Nevertheless, as the surveys were carried out in countries where gender equality exists, the research concluded that in countries where gender equality exists, no gender-specific differences arise in self-reported evaluation of the aesthetic or utilitarian value of e-commerce websites.

Results of neural research process

In the neuroimaging method, aesthetically pleasing, useful, and easy-to-use e-commerce websites were observed to increase neural activity in the left hemisphere of male participants’ brains, indicating increased HbO levels in the blood. At the same time, less aesthetic and not as useful or easy to use websites increased neural activity in the right hemisphere of the same participants’ brains, indicating increased HbR levels in the blood.

Increased neural activity in the left hemisphere of the brain in male participants shows that compared to women, men unconsciously found the e-commerce website more pleasing. This suggests that men are attracted to a website’s design, contrary to previous research conclusions that a website’s utility value is more important to men. On the other hand, decreased neural activity of males in the right hemisphere of the brain could indicate more intense emotional reaction, and therefore, less self-control on online purchases. This emphasizes the “power of beauty,” and the critical importance of e-commerce website design.

The results showed that men need more neural activity to process e-commerce websites for emotional appraisals, to process web content and to make purchasing decisions.

Conclusions of the research

The results support recent research findings that men need more neural activity than women for the same task, and that men react more than women, both positively and negatively, to well or badly designed e-commerce websites.

Due to deactivation of the male brain right hemisphere, and due to increased neural activity of the female brain on the same side, researchers concluded that women are probably more emotionally driven when it comes to online purchases. This difference in neural activity between men and women seemed to open up interesting explanations for why men and women differ in purchasing behavior. The researchers, thus, agreed with earlier findings that women may prefer more complex websites, while men may prefer clean, simple web designs.

From a practical viewpoint, this research advised website designers to consider the gender of their target group when designing a website, and to offer different levels of complexity and media richness.

Limitations of the research

The research results need to be considered in the light of its obvious limitations.

  1. The research conclusions are based on only three e-commerce websites and one target electronic product. The results might not be transferable, therefore, to other website designs or product categories.

    This requires that future research investigates other website formats like social networks or purely informational websites, other product categories, or different user characteristics like age, culture, or experience levels.
  2. Only German participants were included in the study, which could have led to the impact of cultural influences on the conclusions.

 Despite these limitations, the current study is an important initial step toward defining different user groups based on neural and gender-related information processing capabilities. Furthermore, this research can also provide explanations to the inconsistent findings of earlier research on gender differences in viewing e-commerce websites.

Rajika Jayatilake

Rajika Jayatilake is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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