Reading Swimsuit Issues “For the Articles”

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Men really believe they read Playboy for the articles (although internet porn doesn’t even offer that excuse)—at least according to fascinating new research published as a working paper by Harvard Business School [hat tip:  Economist].  The study sheds light on how people rationalize embarrassing or otherwise questionable behavior without recognizing their own true motives.

The authors studied male college students and offered them a choice between two issues of two different sports magazines.  One of each was labeled as a “Swimsuit Issue,” the other headlined as featuring the year’s “Top Ten Athletes.”  Students were told that researchers were studying reasons for buying magazines.  Researchers had manipulated the content so that half of the swimsuit issues and half of the athlete-focused issues featured long, in-depth articles and the other half had more, but shorter stories about different sports.

Not surprisingly, nearly three quarters of the students chose a version that contained lots of pictures of women in bikinis.  What was interesting was why they claimed to have made this choice:  if the bikini issue had longer features, men said that was what they wanted in a sports publication; if the scantily-clad women were accompanied by shorter articles, that was what the men sought.

In prior research, authors Michael Norton, a marketing professor at Harvard and his graduate student Zoe Chance, found that those who have made decisions for potentially embarrassing reasons like this also forget what criteria they believed they had used at the time.

So, when you are choosing between fries and a salad or between going to a party or meeting a deadline, you may want to closely examine your reasoning.  Although, according to another new study featured in the British edition of Wired, we actually regret making many “sensible” choices when we think back on our lives.

Columbia researchers found that subjects looking back at such decisions tended to regret not having chosen the more pleasant option.  They suggest considering “How will I feel years from now about this choice?”  Of course, such consideration will often turn out to preclude making the most dangerous decisions, fortunately.