4 April 1999

Easter guilt? Blame the chocolate!

If you're planning to buy your partner (or friends) the standard $5 box of no-name chocolates this year, you may get more than you bargained for.

It's likely you'll be marked as cheap and insensitive, but you also may be faced with emotional reactions you never expected and behavior you can't quite explain.

"Chocolate is so emotionally laden that there's likely to be some kind of reaction associated with it," says University of Utah marketing professor Janeen Costa, who, with her colleague Russell Belk, recently performed a consumer behavior study involving chocolate.

Costa and Belk, with the help of students at the David Eccles School of Business, conducted interviews with 46 males and 38 females ranging in age from 4 to 80 years. They asked informants a series of questions about their experiences with chocolate to show differences in the patterns of consumption between men and women.

The results will be published in a paper titled, "Chocolate Delights: Gender and Consumer Indulgence."

"Seeking to explain the stereotype of women as conspicuous consumers, we chose to study consumer behavior as it involves chocolate because it has such a long and emotionally charged history, especially for women," says Costa.

People who eat chocolate are seen as indulging in selfish, even sinful desires. And traditionally, chocolate has been associated with "feelings of pleasure, joy and success, or alternately, with sorrow, depression and guilt," she explains.

These associations have caused many people to use chocolate for "mood management," as a way of controlling those emotions.

What's more, the social perceptions of chocolate's use are "genderized," says Costa. Women are viewed as being much more susceptible to the seductive charms of such indulgence, while men are perceived as strong, willful and more self-controlled.

Implied in these genderized perceptions is the notion that women, since they cannot control their own destructive compulsions, must be controlled by their more stoic, rational and unemotional counterparts: men.

On a small scale, the consumption of chocolate tells us a great deal about the larger-scale and well-established stereotypes of women as vulnerable, compulsive, insatiable and in need of protection, says Costa.

Women in Costa and Belk's study associated chocolate with a larger number and broader range of emotions and more frequently discussed its use as cure for negative emotional states. Men were more likely to use pejorative terms referring to chocolate consumers and were recorded actively policing women's consumption.

The study's female participants admitted to feelings of guilt and uncontrolled desire that caused some women to hoard, hide or even steal chocolate from others. Using terms such as "addiction" and "chocoholism," others admitted to feeling completely out of control when it came to purchasing and eating chocolate.

Costa says it's possible that the male giver of chocolate in recognition of Valentine's Day would incite emotional reactions ranging from joy to guilt and depression.

"Regarded as an acceptable and socially appropriate time to indulge, however, holidays do tend to generalize the meaning a little," she adds.