Languages Magazine

The Embodied Cognition of Tesco's Gendered Toys

By Andrew D Wilson @PsychScientists
The embodied cognition of Tesco's gendered toysThe embodied cognition of Tesco's gendered toysTesco got in trouble on the internet last week for having toy chemistry sets labelled as being for boys, not girls in their online store. There's a lot of noise about how inappropriate all this gender labelling is (and rightly so - it's everywhere and it's awful). Lots of potential customers are being very annoyed all over Twitter: so why does Tesco do this? Why is this sort of thing so very common? Oddly, I think an embodied task analysis (using our 4 questions which we describe in our Frontiers paper) might shed some light on this question, while also perhaps serving as an accessible example of what it is we're up to with our work.

The thing that got me thinking was this: a Tesco spokesperson said on Twitter that “Toy signage is currently based on research and how our customers tell us they like to shop in our stores”. No one believed them, with replies ranging from 'what kind of research' to the less useful but more common 'I would never tell you to do this so what the hell?'. I think they are telling the truth, and I think their behavior can be readily explained using our four key questions. More importantly, I think it reveals how we can change Tesco's behaviour, and the answer means knowing about the extended system from which that behavior emerges.

1. What is the task to be solved?

Tesco, like all large corporations, is in the business of making money. Unlike humans, who try to do all sorts of things like speak and catch balls, this is basically the only thing Tesco are ever trying to achieve. This is the task they are trying to solve, and this means that any behaviours they exhibit must be interpreted with respect to this task goal. 
  • Task: maximise profits from children's toys
2. What resources do they have available to solve the task?
In order to make money, Tesco offers a range of goods and services to people and does their best to make sure people get these from them, rather than a competitor. Which goods and services they offer is a function of what they think they can sell, and they therefore require information about what people want to buy. There is also flex in how Tesco go about the act of selling their products, and so they need information about the factors that affect consumer decisions (pricing, presentation, etc). They then try to sell things to people and see how they go, and fine tune their selling as a function of that outcome.
  • Resource 1: things to sell
  • Resource 2: information about what people buy
  • Resource 3: information about what affects what people buy
  • Resource 4: the ability to engage in the transaction
3. How might they assemble the resources to solve the task?
The important thing to note is that Tesco only has a limited amount of information. Like people, it only 'perceives' information that is relevant to it's activity. It 'perceives' how many of each item type people buy and at what price, and via it's online store it also 'perceives' what people search for and whether people buy any of the results they serve up.

Tesco claim that their toys are labelled with gender because research tells them this is what people want. They wouldn't tell me what kind of research, but my guess is that it's mostly based on search terms used on their website. People casting around for ideas will type in 'toys for boys' or 'for girls' and then buy the results they think fit that search the best. 

From the first person perspective of Tesco, all it perceives is which search results successfully sell someone a toy. That's it. It doesn't perceive your indecision, or the middle-class angst you feel in buying a chemistry set even though its labelled 'for boys'. So my hypothesised system to explain Tesco's gender labelling behavior is simple: 

  1. Offer toys for sale online.
  2. Note that search terms for toys often specify a gender. This tells Tesco people want access to information about this to facilitate their purchasing.
  3. Note which toys are bought after people search for toys 'for boys' or 'for girls'. Label appropriately.
  4. Sell toys.
  5. PROFIT.
  6. Monitor for any changes.
4. Does Tesco, in fact, do this?
I'm not able to answer this for sure; as I mentioned, they wouldn't tell me what kind of research they were relying on. Even if the research is focus group based, though, the basic form of the system remains the same, with just minor differences due to the different dynamics of that different source of information (e.g. focus groups would only enable periodic updates, so the system would be sluggish to respond). I'm happy to bet that there really is research of some kind, though - Tesco needs information in order to maximise profits as much as people need information in order to achieve their task goals. 

So what have we gained?

The embodied analysis reveals a few important facts. Tesco's behaviour, like ours, is a function of the flow of information it perceives and what that information tells it about whether it's achieving it's task goals. Therefore, to understand its behaviour, and, more importantly, to figure out how to change that behaviour, it is critical to understand the dynamics of that information flow, i.e. what is and isn't included and how that information plays out over time.

Tesco can perceive that people include gender information in their searches for toys. Tesco can also perceive that when they shape their online store to include this information, it affects consumer behaviour; specifically, it makes people more likely to buy what they find in the search. (This must be the case, or else Tesco would have no drive to either make or maintain the change to using gender information in their labelling. Remember, Tesco's task is simply to make money.) Tesco cannot perceive that you were buying the toy 'under protest', nor can they perceive you not ever shopping there - the absence of information cannot shape behavior (see: friction).
The first thing we learn, then, is that Tesco is not evil. They are simply responding to the flow of information in which their behavior is embedded. The behavior 'gender labelling' is an emergent property of Tesco performing the task they are in the environment they have information about. It is a property of the extended system, and not an internal trait of Tesco.

The second thing we learn is how to change this behavior. The only way any system can alter it's behavior is by either trying to achieve a different goal (becoming a different task specific device) or by being exposed to a different flow of information that makes the old behavior no longer stable. Tesco can't change task: making money is the only reason it exists. The information therefore has to change, and because the information is generated by us, the consumer, we have to change what we're doing. We have to tell Tesco, in a format it can understand, that gendered labelling is no longer going to improve profits. So stop searching online for toys by gender. Stop buying those toys full stop. By itself, however, this absence of information can't tell Tesco what to do differently, but it can help prevent the active maintenance of the gender labelling behavior.  

But most importantly, you must tell Tesco (and others) what you do want (gender neutral labelling) in a format it can understand so they they have a behavior to switch into. Use Twitter, sign petitions, critique them when they do it wrong (and hey, look - that new flow of information is already have an effect) but, most importantly, reward them when they do it right by buying their neutrally labelled toys more than their gender labelled ones. Otherwise they'll simply never notice they have to change anything. 


Wilson, A. D., & Golonka, S. (2013). Embodied Cognition is Not What you Think it is Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00058

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