When I was a kid, we used to eat at a paper-placemat-rosé-by-the-carafe Italian place called Vince’s Spaghetti. They had three sizes of spaghetti: regular, extra-large and light-eater. No matter how not-hungry I was, there was no way I was ever ordering the light eater portion.

Since then, I’ve noticed that menus will occasionally have a “ladies portion” sized steak. As I’m no longer a teenager, I can order that one without too much damage to my ego if it’s the size I want. But I might point to the item instead of saying it out loud. Or perhaps call it “the 10 ounce steak.” Or make it a joke.

In 2006, Katherine White and Darren W. Dahl explored this phenomenon in the Journal of Consumer Psychology with an article helpfully titled To Be or Not Be? The Influence of Dissociative Reference Groups on Consumer Preferences.

TL;DR: Much research has been devoted to consumer preferences based on groups to which a person either already belongs, or aspires to belong. The authors run three experiments to test the third case:  can consumers be manipulated into selecting an alternative product because they don’t want to be associated with a particular group? Not surprisingly, the answer is, “yep.”

May I take your order?

The authors begin by looking at the scholarly history of reference group influence. Dozens of articles have shown that people have favorable attitudes toward things that match their current or aspirational self-image. The opposite is also true: people have negative attitudes toward things that they don’t want to be associated with. White and Dahl propose that dissociation with those negative things will affect consumer preferences.

To clarify, the things people don’t want to be associated with aren’t bad things – they’re just things that don’t fit into one’s self-image. In a simple example, “ladylike” is not an attribute that matches the current self-image of many men. So male consumers may gravitate away from products with ladylike attributes.

Yes, I’d like the cowgirl steak, please

In the first of three studies, the authors tested the hypothesis that men will evaluate a product more negatively if it’s given female attributes.  A group of men and women were given a menu that included both 10 and 12 ounce steaks, with the 10 ounce steak variously called either “chef’s cut” or “ladies’ cut.” The participants were then asked to evaluate the menu choices. Men were okay with the 10 ounce steak when it was called the “chef’s cut,” but graded it more than a point lower when it was the “ladies’ cut.” Women showed no preference to either 10 ounce steak name.

But what if nobody is watching? Study two changed the scenario by asking participants to imagine they’re ordering room service, either alone or with a friend, and contained the same two 10 ounce steak options. Once again, the ladies’ cut received lower scores, but this time only when participants imagined they were eating in the presence of someone else.

The third study correlated a measure of public self-consciousness with the avoidance of the ladies’ cut. In other words, the more self-conscious you are in public, the less likely you would be to select the ladies’ portion. It found, not surprisingly that they were indeed correlated.

And the duchess potatoes

The authors point out that one of the implications of the research is that dissociative reference groups could be used in social causes, specifically in “influencing prevention-focused behaviors.” I’m not saying we’ve already thought of that, but McGruff the Crime Dog was telling us “users are losers” way back in 1987. So, yeah, we’ve already thought of that.

The nonprofit spin: Fundraising typically focuses on reinforcing attributes of groups to which a donor belongs or aspires to belong, especially when donation activity is public. In other words, we publish lists of donors by giving tier because we expect that some people will want their name above other people’s names, or listed next to people they want to be like.

It might be instructive to also look at the dissociative case. Could donors be encouraged to select a higher donor tier because they don’t want their name below someone else? Sure, but that seems like a minor case that isn’t really worth spending time on. More likely, a donor just won’t make any gift at all and avoid the issue entirely.

Charitable donations differ in one significant way from ordering off of a menu. You specifically go to a restaurant to order something, so using dissociative manipulation among menu items is possible. For a donor, on the other hand, the choice is usually donate vs. don’t donate, and the dollar amount is a separate decision process. Attempting to manipulate the gift amount before closing the gift is a terrible idea.

Which takes us right back to the restaurant. What’s a grown-up’s reaction to a menu item called “ladies portion”? Once it’s recognized as manipulation – not great.

The nonprofit version of a menu might be donor tiers, giving levels, or whatever you choose to call them. If donors get any inkling that you’re trying to trick them into selecting a particular level, you’ve just reduced the likelihood of further gifts. That’s a bad donor retention strategy.

Besides, we spend way too much time trying to come up with cutesy names for giving levels, which would certainly be better spent reading random journal articles or eating steak.

 Read it yourselfWhite, K., & Dahl, D. W. (2006). To Be or Not Be? The Influence of Dissociative Reference Groups on Consumer Preferences. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 16(4), 404–414.

image: Cowgirl Romances No. 3; Fiction House Magazines – “Daughter of the Devil’s Brand” — “Maverick Guns from Arizona” — and many other heart-warming thrillers of ranch and range. 1951. Public Domain.