In the genes: Women hard-wired to shop

Christmas is no longer a time of peace and goodwill to all men. It can be the season of stress, consumerism, and overloading the credit card. Everyone knows that women cope with it better than men. Why is that? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that many men find the actual process of shopping a daunting experience.

In a study commissioned by a London shopping center, psychologist David Lewis measured stress levels in shoppers by monitoring their heart rates, blood pressure, and secretion of stress hormones. He discovered that the stress levels of male shoppers rose to those experienced by fighter pilots and riot police, while only one in four women registered even a slight change.

Lewis felt that this huge difference between the sexes was due to inexperience in the shopping environment since women do the majority of a household's grocery shopping. So how can you help your partner through this "traumatic" experience?

An obvious tactic is to give him the Christmas grocery list and banish him to the supermarket. But forcing him to fight for his Christmas pudding is not likely to fill him with festive cheer. You may well find yourself alone under the mistletoe as he retreats to a bar to recover.

Perhaps we need to turn to evolutionary theory to really understand men.

Anthropologists say our ancestors enforced a strict division of labor between the sexes. The men made hunting implements, hunted for meat, and protected the tribe– while the women looked after the children, gathered vegetation, and grabbed any insects or small animals that happened to run by. With natural selection favoring these specific traits, we now have modern men who are genetically programmed to focus on one task at a time while women are adapted to keeping an open mind and making the most of everything they find.

This genetic bias explains why a man shopping for a pair of jeans walks into a shop, finds a pair his size, and buys them. However, a woman is destined to look through all the clothes shops (not to mention shoe shops) in search of a bargain or something to match a particular outfit.

But just how realistic is this theory?

It's easy to forget how hard life was for our ancestors. It was not a case of having to juggle work and life. Their daily work was finding enough food for the family, not to mention avoiding the powerful predators

Needing to make the most of any opportunity to survive, prehistoric men would have been opportunist hunters, not to mention scavengers. They might be tracking woolly mammoths, but they would pounce on anything edible that caught their eye and it didn't have to be warm and furry, it could be fruit or even raw materials for tools. This fact may explain why men will go to the supermarket for a bottle of milk and return with a case of beer they found on sale. However, while this demonstrates that men are capable of spotting a bargain, it doesn't explain why they would rather have their legs waxed than enter a shopping mall at Christmas.

Perhaps the answer lies with children. Our female ancestors not only had to look out for any available food, they needed to keep a watchful eye on their progeny. It's impossible to stop babies cramming anything new into their mouth. Imagine your child sitting on the forest floor surrounded by fascinating but potentially poisonous objects. Then add the kid intent on displaying his tree climbing prowess, not to mention the prospect of saber-tooth tigers prowling through the area. It starts to make Christmas shopping look as easy as falling off a Yule log.

Another strange male shopping trait is the desire to do all their shopping at the last minute, which may be linked with another evolutionary behavior, in this case the male trophy mentality. Men like to show off their bravery to demonstrate the superiority of their gene pool– and managing to buy 20 presents after 5pm on Christmas Eve is an impressive feat.

Luckily for them, they're usually oblivious to the fact that the recipients are less than thrilled with their presents, or that they have given poor Auntie Flo the same lavender toiletry set for the last three years. They're too busy telling everyone how they completed their shopping in two hours on Christmas Eve and still had time for a drink on the way home. We may object to Christmas products hitting the shops in September, but a little forward planning would reduce the stress levels significantly!

Russ King holds a PhD in psychology from Cambridge University, and writes about health and science. This story originally appeared in Britain's Good Health magazine.