Study: How to Feel Less Ashamed of the Embarrassing Things We Buy

Just buying more items won't do—the overall composition of the shopping basket matters.
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(misterbisson/flickr)

In an ideal world, no one would be embarrassed to go to the store and buy tampons, condoms, hemorrhoid cream, adult diapers, or anything, really, that comes up in the course of being a person. (Humans are gross. Why must we pretend we’re not?) But no one has perfect confidence, we all have things we’re working on, and that’s why we need scientific research, to tell us how to mitigate our consumer embarrassment. The trick is to buy extra items. But not just any extra items—ones that have the opposite connotation of the thing sending you into a shame spiral.

The surprisingly robust amount of literature already available on consumer embarrassment shows that people generally believe they can distract cashiers from an embarrassing item by buying more things. In a new study forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers from Northwestern University did not believe that was a nuanced enough view on condom buying. It’s the shopping cart as a whole that embarrasses you, they hypothesized, and it matters whether the additional items you buy complement or counterbalance the embarrassing item.

They conducted a series of experiments, where participants (usually undergraduates) either imagined buying embarrassing things or were actually sent out to make purchases, probably selling their discomfort for cash as undergrads are wont to do. These experiments showed that people felt more embarrassed when the additional item or items were complementary to the embarrassing one. For example, adding underwear to a purchase of anti-diarrhea medicine, or adding lotion and tissues when you’re already buying condoms only makes things worse. But buying an issue of Scientific American and a Rubik’s cube to offset your copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Improving Your IQ made people feel less embarrassed. Buying something neutral, like a can of pop, made people generally less embarrassed, due to the attention-diverting effects of buying more items.

A lot of consumer embarrassment has to do with the person’s level of self-consciousness about their public image. People who cared less about their public image were more likely to go ahead and buy the lotion and tissues along with the condoms, damn the torpedoes. Though it's possible we worry too much about what cashiers think of us—an informal poll I did of people I know who've worked in retail revealed most of them weren't nearly as judgey as I expected.

To build on the WikiHow article "How to Buy Condoms Discreetly" (which already overlaps pretty significantly with data mentioned in the study—embarrassed consumers will shop at less crowded stores and buy additional items), the next time a purchase is making you blush, just buy something else that gives the opposite impression.

If you’re buying Gas-X, throw a can of beans in the cart. On a toilet paper run, consider also purchasing a jar of urine. A combined haul of condoms and a chastity belt should throw ‘em off the scent.

This is a great opportunity for you to reveal your embarrassing purchases in the comments. I’ll start: I once bought Pepto-Bismol and drank it straight from the bottle on the train to quell some nacho-induced nausea before dance class.  The truth will set you free.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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