Research question: How are stigmas and taboos affected by the social and contextual environment in which the tabooed item is encountered? Because norms are not obvious around sex toys, it provides a good context to use social and environmental cues to influence perception. More specifically, how do perceptions of sex toys change when others voice support for sex toys or when placed in contrast with more unconventional sex toys?
Hypothesis: The contrast effect is the idea that we evaluate objects and choices primarily by contrasting them with other salient objects and choices. Thus, we predicted that when a fixed set of sex toys was presented along with other unconventional, or “kinky,” sex toys, participants would be willing to pay more for the same fixed set of sex toys than when they were presented alongside other “tame” sex toys. We also predicted that a confederate voicing support for sex toys would create a social norm, which would increase how much subjects were willing to pay for sex toys.
Experiment: We recruited a group of female undergrads to attend a sex toy party. The study was designed with 4 conditions, in a two (kinky vs. tame) by two (approve vs. disapprove) design. We presented the students with 8 sex toys, 4 “fixed” sex toys that everyone saw, and 4 that varied by condition. Those in the “kinky” condition were given 4 relatively unconventional sex toys, while those in the “tame” condition were given 4 relatively neutral sex toys. In addition, those in the “approve” condition heard a confederate express how much they loved sex toys, while those in the “disapprove” condition heard the confederate express their dislike of sex toys. Next, subjects wrote down the price they would be willing to pay for each of the 8 sex toys. If their maximum price was higher than the predetermined price of each toy, the subjects paid the predetermined price and bought the sex toy, otherwise there was no transaction. We measured the amount each subject was willing to pay for each of the 8 toys.
Results: We found two effects: those in the kinky condition were willing to pay more on average than those in the tame condition, and those in the approval condition were willing to pay more on average than those in the disapproval condition.
Application: In situations where norms may not be well established, such as in new contexts, social and environmental cues can have a stronger influence on behavior than they otherwise would on choice. This study also demonstrated that even a simple statement of approval or disapproval can be enough to create a powerful social norm in a situation where the preexisting norms are ambiguous.