Universities challenged to stop stating the obvious

Women enjoy shopping. Men don’t. Exeter University’s psychology department interviewed 2,000 shoppers to discover this, and Iain Murray wants to know why

It is a curmudgeonly or disaffected soul who retains no affection for his alma mater, so naturally your correspondent is the first to profess happy memories of the institution where he grappled with economics, both theoretical and applied, and came off worst. I have no hard feelings nor do I bear any grudge. I spent three happy years at Exeter University, the jewel in the crown of West Country academia.

True, it is but a small crown, but in those days Exeter was but a small university. In my day, there were just 2,000 students in all and I think we were, with few exceptions, proud and pleased to be there. The university was pretty pleased with itself, having just a decade earlier emerged from a patient apprenticeship of some 60 years as the University College of the South West into the status of a fully fledged university with its own charter and its own right to confer degrees. How

different from the events of just a few years ago when the then prime minister John Major fashioned the accumulated chips on his shoulder into a magic wand, tapped twice, and lo, a myriad of new universities sprang into life overnight, peacock butterflies fresh from the unprepossessing chrysalises of the old polytechnics.

Now I know you are thinking, why is he telling me all this? Well, it’s not often that the old alma mater gets into the news. If the truth be known, it’s not matured into the centre of excellence that it so earnestly wished to be when I was there. It can do better than accept its place in the domino line of red-brick universities that are much of a muchness in the overcrowded world of contemporary tertiary education.

And when every city, most towns, and even a few suburban backwaters boast their own seats of higher learning, it’s a struggle not merely to fill the places, but to survive. For all the Government’s wishes that every breathing soul should tote through life the suffix BA, BSc, or something similar, academic study does not suit everyone; and that of course explains the proliferation of degree courses in fun subjects such as football, soap opera, turf grass science, amenity horticulture, surf and beach management, decision making (seriously – you can get a BSc in that at the University of Luton), the ubiquitous media studies and yes, marketing.

Ah, marketing. That’s the other thing at which universities strive to excel. Creating a BA in Madonna studies is but a beginning; next you must go out and find sufficient people willing to arm themselves for life’s challenges with such a quirky weapon.

But I do not have to tell you, dear reader, that marketing is a subtle game of many facets, one of which is PR, otherwise known as attention seeking. And that brings me back to my alma mater. Understandably eager not merely to move with the times, but also to let the world see that it is, Exeter boasts a fun psychology faculty complete with publicity wing attached. And, no doubt to its delight, last week it made the headlines. “Men out shopping are bored after 72 minutes”, to quote this triumph in full. Psychologist Dr Tim Denison (note the matey diminutive – I’ll bet Dr Tim is a “people person”) and his team studied 2,000 shoppers and found that, on average, women shop for an hour and 40 minutes before they have had enough, whereas men can keep going for only 72 minutes before rigor mortis sets in.

The first response to this news is, well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs. One thing I learnt at Exeter all those years ago is that sociology is the study of the bleeding obvious, or rather its findings come out that way. Dr Tim is to be credited for making plain that psychology shares that characteristic with its sister behavioural science.

Had he taken the trouble to knock on my door, I could have saved him a great deal of time and into the bargain relieved 2,000 shoppers of his unwelcome attention. And I am not alone: it does not require a degree in boredom studies to know that any man worthy of the name hates shopping more than sin, and that every woman worthy of the name takes to the retail environment like a lush to booze.

Nor was I alone in suspecting that Dr Tim had been duped. It is well known that the first reaction of any right-minded citizen confronted by a researcher is to lie. The Exeter study confirms the truism: for anecdotal evidence supported by personal experience shows beyond reasonable doubt that more than 90 per cent of men become bored by shopping after about seven minutes, suicidally so after about ten.

In an attempt to give the findings greater authenticity, the Exeter researchers fall back on a reference to “hunter gatherers” without which no item of behavioural science can be truly credible. Women, says the study, are the gatherers, happy to roam through shops until something catches their eye. Men are the hunters, knowing what they want and going straight for the kill. Yet again, full marks for pointing to a feline quadruped and calling it a cat.

Loyalty makes me want to say that Exeter’s bid for fame was a nice try, but it wasn’t even that.

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