It all goes back to trail mix

A study suggests that when it comes to remembering the location of the Ben and Jerry's, women have a biological advantage over men.

Published August 23, 2007 8:50PM (EDT)

I need to take a minute to discuss a new study briefly mentioned in Wednesday's roundup -- the one from the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences that says that biological differences make women better shoppers than men.

First, let me make it clear that I do not believe that there are no biological differences between the sexes. (The whole "we make babies" thing gets in the way of that theory.) But still, why do we have to try to link every difference back to humans' prehistoric past? Enough with the nuts and the berries!

Perhaps my primordial hunter-gatherer soul was already on guard because of the study that popped up everywhere last week about why women like pink. It said that women prefer red-tinted things not because of Barbie or My Little Pony but because it reminds our deep inner beings of the days when we were responsible for, you guessed it, gathering berries. What do berries have to do with pink things? Well, uh, they can be reddish (provided, of course, that they're not blackberries, blueberries or huckleberries). And red is sort of close to pink. And since ancient humans had strict rules that forbade men from berry picking, women alone evolved to be attracted to reddish things against green backgrounds. (This theory does not explain why red and green make for such an unfashionable color combination -- though it does prompt the question of whether women are biologically attracted to Christmas.)

As for blue, the study suggested that men prefer it because it indicates good weather and good water sources. To which I say, why would men like good weather more than women would? Why would prehistoric men care more about cloudless days than about tasty berries? (Berries are delicious.) And as far as I know, water is actually clear. The only time I've seen it be truly blue is in a toilet bowl.

But that pink stuff is so last week. Now we've got this new study suggesting that women are genetically programmed to be really good at shopping for food. Why? Because of nuts and berries. As this article in the Telegraph explains, men are better at reading maps than women are, which "probably has its origins in the African savannah, when men were hunting down highly mobile prey." You know -- on those prey-finding GPS devices?

The article continues, "But in these ancient hunter-gatherer societies, women collected plants and this begged a key question, said the team: Shouldn't women more accurately remember the location of plant foods than men?" So the team did what any group of scientists would. They gathered a group of men and women and set them loose in a farmers market. The result? When given a compass and asked to identify the direction of treats like strawberries or tomatoes, the women were a lot better at the task than men. And when the food was high calorie -- like avocados or honey -- the difference was more dramatic than with low-cal foods like lettuce and cucumbers.

My first response is, Who the hell cares where the lettuce and the cucumbers are? Second, while the study reports that women were 27 percent better than men at pointing out the correct direction, the absolute numbers are not as shocking: Men tended to be off by 33 degrees, women by about 25. Third, the study found that when the food was good enough, men and women were equally on target. (As the article puts it, "Women have the same navigational skills as men, if there is sufficient motivation to get to a destination, such as a cream bun.")

Perhaps most important, couldn't women's ability to locate a food stall at a farmers market have something to do with the fact that women shop for their families' food more often than men do and thus are better practiced at remembering where stuff is? Or that women tend to have more complicated relationships with high-calorie foods than men and may be more likely to remember where temptation is located? (This reminds me of the scene in "Bridget Jones" where her friend Tom is shocked to discover that she can recite from memory the calorie counts of olives.)

The Telegraph doesn't ask these questions, however. Instead, it just says that this gender difference may become less relevant in the future (assuming, of course, that it's relevant now) as more and more people do their shopping on the Internet. I just hope there are some good sites out there for trail mix.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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