A research study was reported in the mainstream news media yesterday. Inexplicably, it caught my attention: “TITILLATED BY THE SALES TAG—Turns out people can get as excited spotting a deal as they do watching porn.” [2] The article’s thesis is based on a recent study by Britain’s Westminister University and the Institute of Promotional Marketing. And right there before the article starts is the killer anecdotal comment from a professional bargain shopper,

“It’s one of the highest forms of pleasure… I don’t want to say [it’s like] sex, but close to it.”

Pardon me, but either I’m not shopping in the right stores, or there are a lot of people out there having truly awful sex lives. Better look deeper into this research, the same way we should always analyse, say, marketing research.

First, check for research sponsor bias: is the organisation that executed or paid for the research likely to gain or lose based on its outcome? In this context, the university is unassailable. You could argue that the promotional marketing institute does have something to gain, but these results seem more than a little bit over-the-top for believable self-promotion. I’m pretty sure their business model would be intact even if they couldn’t prove polyester-clad housewives (or househusbands) were having spontaneous orgasms in the clearance aisle of Walmarts around the world.

Next, look at methodology, paying particular attention to the sample size and sample definition. No sample size is reported, but the subjects were British. If the Broadway hit “No Sex Please, We’re Canadian!” already came and went, I missed it. [3]

The study used eye movement and pupil dilation as the measure of “emotional arousal”. On a scale of 1 to 10, both bargain shopping and pornography scored between 5 and 7. Full stop here: 5 or 6 out of 10 doesn’t seem that impressive to me—for sex or shopping. And allow me to be self-anecdotal and suggest that there’s a lot more going on in the sexually-aroused human body than twitching eyes and dilating pupils.

Lastly, use your instincts to make sure the research results are free from basic flaws in deduction and that the causal link makes sense. Well, it’s wrong to deduce that looking at pictures of other people having sex is the same as having sex. Even the news article’s factually-libertine author struggled to explain how bargain shopping might be causing emotional arousal.

So that’s a bit of a disappointment. Turns out shopping really isn’t better than sex. Here’s what is true: research results are rarely wrong, but we need to make sure we asked the right questions of the right people and made the right deductions from the results.

Notes and references:

  1. Feature image credit: scene from “When Harry Meet Sally”, 1989
  2. Globe and Mail, Sep 21, 2010.
  3. Real research shows that people in the UK have sex significantly more frequently than North Americans, right up there behind the French. Just couldn’t resist the comment (this one, or that one).