THE BLOG
11/05/2013 01:14 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Avoiding Offending Stigmatized Persons: The Matching Strategy

In the course of our everyday lives, we may sometimes find ourselves in awkward situations in which the chances of offending someone with our choices are quite high.

For instance, you might find yourself picking up lunch for yourself and an overweight friend. Do you get her fries or salad as a side dish? What do you get for yourself? What will she think when you return with your selections for her and for yourself?

As another example, you might find yourself at the airport, choosing two books for a flight: one book is for yourself and the other is for a friend who is not as scholarly. Do you get her a highbrow book or a lowbrow book, and what do you get for yourself? What will she think when you return with both of the books?

Perhaps, rather than being the chooser in this awkward situation, you've sometimes been the recipient -- for example, the overweight friend. As a recipient, you may have seen others squirm as they tried to not offend you with their choices. You may have tried to step in and preclude awkwardness by explaining exactly what you want -- fries or salad. But what happens when choosers are on their own and must return to their friends with two items in hand? What choices do people make?

In our work at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, we found that people generally choose matching options when choosing for themselves and groups that are often stigmatized in America. For example, they get themselves the same food, book, or music as they get the other person, and they choose this way in order to avoid offending. We looked specifically at how individuals make choices for themselves and black Americans, obese people, the less educated, and the elderly -- groups that may often be stigmatized in America, depending upon the social context.

In one of our experiments, we procured a custom-designed fat suit and hired a student who was naturally slim to sometimes dress up in the suit and sometimes not. We had different people interact with her in both situations and then asked these people to pick a snack for themselves and for the student. They could choose between chocolate chip cookies and wheat crackers.

We discovered that in general, people pursued a matching strategy when choosing for themselves and the "overweight" student. In other words, they overwhelmingly chose either two bags of healthy wheat crackers or two bags of unhealthy chocolate chip cookies for themselves and the "overweight" student. The same conclusion held true for other types of stigma we studied.

Therefore, in contrast to much consumer behavior research that has found that we prefer to dissociate from stigmatized others, we found that people made product choices that associated and converged with stigmatized group members.

Our findings build upon a small but growing body of research about how we tiptoe around stigma. In other words, instead of making stigma salient, we prefer to avoid bringing it up as much as possible.

For example, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and his colleagues found that white participants avoid mentioning race even when bringing up the difference would be helpful and relevant in a situation.

Our findings and Norton's conclusions raise an important question: does tiptoeing work? Norton and his colleagues actually found that black participants evaluated white participants worse when white participants avoided mentioning race. Is that also the case with the matching strategy we found? Does matching make stigmatized group members feel good or do stigmatized group members see through such a strategy and become offended?

We hope to answer these questions in the future. In a world that is ever more diverse and interconnected, understanding how people react to and negotiate interactions with stigmatized group members is becoming ever more important.

This post is written by Duke University's Fuqua School of Business researchers Peggy Liu and Troy Campbell.

These authors conducted the primary research discussed in this article with Duke professors Gavan Fitzsimons and Gráinne Fitzsimons.

For more information about this research, please contact Peggy Liu at peggy.liu@duke.edu.