Anonymity is one of the great strengths, and weaknesses, of the Internet. It allows for appalling behavior, but also for people to seek information, or products, that they might be embarrassed to search for face-to-face. Yet surprisingly, a recent study suggests that even in the privacy of our own houses we become uncomfortable when purchasing products that carry social stigma.
The ability to order and pay online has greatly expanded the market for products that people might once have been uncomfortable buying. The process has in turn often diminished the social taboos that caused the embarrassment in the first place. However, Dr Kelly Herd of Indiana University found that far more shame lingers than we might assume.
In the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Herd reports responses from people asked to imagine buying Viagra and a drug for incontinence online. In the paper Herd and her coauthors note, “Embarrassment is defined as a social emotion arising from a deficiency in one’s presented self to others and, as such, requires an audience.”
Yet Herd’s study suggests that people are often embarrassed in the privacy of their own bedroom.
Herd and her colleagues asked 124 respondents to close their eyes and imagine buying incontinence medication with some told to do so over the counter and others online. The scenario was imaginary, but respondents were equally likely to describe themselves blushing, or wanting to hide.
“There is a misconception that buying products online insulates consumers from being embarrassed,” Herd said. “But while the product may arrive at the doorstep discretely, the act of purchasing is what triggers the embarrassment. You still feel embarrassment because you're judging yourself. It's not about you even thinking about others judging you.”
In the same paper Herd reports on a survey of 304 heterosexual men aged over 35 buying Viagra. While this found that embarrassment persisted online, there was an intriguing difference. As well as its intended use against impotence, Viagra has a secondary market among men who find it increases sexual pleasure, even when they have no trouble maintaining an erection.
“When you buy it in public, it doesn't matter why you're buying it, because you perceive that people are going to judge you just for having purchased the product,” Herd said. “In private, it's much more nuanced...”
The buyers were embarrassed to even imagine buying drugs for impotence (the authors refer to a report that “many men are so afraid of damaging their image that they deny any knowledge of treatments for impotence”), but happy to think about consuming for pleasure. When buying in public they anticipated equal embarrassment whatever the purpose. Men were almost as embarrassed to buy online for erectile dysfunction, but had few problems with the idea of buying for pleasure.
Findings that rely on participants imagining scenarios have to be interpreted with caution, but confirmation may benefit companies selling products deemed embarrassing, and also save lives. Public health campaigns often depend on overcoming embarrassment, for example at getting tested for STIs or buying condoms, but Herd warns, “Our research suggests that [offering products online] is not the fix.”