Imagine you’re dining out at a casual restaurant with some friends. After looking over the menu, you decide to order the steak. But then, after a dinner companion orders a salad for their main course, you declare: “I’ll have the salad too.”
This kind of situation – making choices that you probably otherwise wouldn’t make were you alone – probably happens more often than you think in a wide variety of settings, from eating out to shopping and even donating to charity. And it’s not just a matter of you suddenly realizing the salad sounds more appetizing.
Prior research has shown people have a tendency to mimic the choices and behaviors of others. But other work suggests people also want to do the exact opposite to signal their uniqueness in a group by making a different choice from others.
As scholars who examine consumer behavior, we wanted to resolve this discrepancy: What makes people more likely to copy others’ behavior, and what leads them to do their own thing?
A social signal
We developed a theory that how and why people match or mimic others’ choices depends a lot on the attributes of the thing being selected.
Choices have what we call “ordinal” attributes that can be ranked objectively – such as size or price – as well as “nominal” attributes that are not as easily ranked – such as flavor or shape. We hypothesized that ordinal attributes have more social influence, alerting others to what may be seen as “appropriate” in a given context.
Nominal attributes, on the other hand, would seem to be understood as a reflection of one’s personal preferences.
So we performed 11 studies to test our theory.
One scoop or two
In one study conducted with 190 undergraduate students, we told participants that they were on their way to an ice cream parlor with a friend to get a cone. We then told our would-be ice cream consumers that their companion was getting either one scoop of vanilla, one scoop of chocolate, two scoops of vanilla or two scoops of chocolate. We then asked participants what they wanted to order.
We found that people were much more likely to order the same size as their companion but not the same flavor.
The participants seemed to interpret the number of scoops the companion ordered as an indication of what’s appropriate. For example, ordering two scoops might signal “permission” to indulge or seem the more financially savvy – if less healthy – choice, since it usually costs only marginally more than one. Or a single scoop might suggest “let’s enjoy some ice cream – but not too much.”
The choice of chocolate or vanilla, on the other hand, is readily understood as a personal preference and thus signals nothing about which is better or more appropriate. I like vanilla, you like chocolate – everyone’s happy.
We also asked participants to rate how important avoiding social discomfort was in their decision. Those who ordered the same number of scoops as their companion rated it as more important than those who picked a different amount.
Examining other contexts
In the other studies, we replicated our results using different products, in various settings and with a variety of ordinal and nominal attributes.
For example, in another experiment, we gave participants US
You probably know what it means to “come out” as gay. You may even have heard the expression used in relation to other kinds of identity, such as being undocumented.
But do you know where the term comes from? Or that its meaning has changed over time?
In the late 19th and early 20th century, gay subculture thrived in many large American cities.
Gay men spoke of “coming out” into gay society – borrowing the term from debutante society, where elite young women came out into high society. A 1931 news article in the Baltimore Afro-American referred to “the coming out of new debutantes into homosexual society.” It was titled “1931 Debutantes Bow at Local ‘Pansy’ Ball.”
The 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s witnessed a growing backlash against this visible gay world. In response, gay life became more secretive.
The Mattachine Society, the earliest important organization of what was known as the homophile movement – a precursor of the gay rights movement – took its name from mysterious medieval figures in masks. In this context, coming out meant acknowledging one’s sexual orientation to oneself and to other gay people. It did not mean revealing it to the world at large.
Such selective sharing relied on code phrases – such as “family,” “a club member,” “a friend of Dorothy’s,” “a friend of Mrs. King” or “gay” – that could be used in mixed company to designate someone as homosexual.
The term “gay” was originally borrowed from the slang of women prostitutes, when they used the word to refer to women in their profession. Of course, “gay” was ultimately “outed” when the gay rights movement adopted it following the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969.
Out in public
Coming out took on a more political meaning after the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, in which patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City fought back against a police raid. The rebellion included riots and a resistance that lasted for days. It was subsequently commemorated in an annual march known today as “gay pride.”
At the first Gay Liberation March in New York City in June 1970, one of the organizers stated that “we’ll never have the freedom and civil rights we deserve as human beings unless we stop hiding in closets and in the shelter of anonymity.”
By this time, coming out was juxtaposed with being in the closet, conveying the shame associated with hiding. By the end of the 1960s, queer people who pretended to be heterosexual were said to be “in the closet” or labeled a “closet case” or, in the case of gay men, “closet queens.”
By the 1970s, mainstream journalists were already using the term beyond sexual orientation – to speak of, for instance, “closet conservatives” and “closet gourmets.”
A rite of passage
By presenting coming out as a way to end internalized self-hatred and achieve a better life, the LGBTQ movement helped to encourage people to come out, despite associated risks. It also showed how coming could be used to build solidarity and recruit other queer people.
For instance, in 1978, in his campaign to defeat a California initiative that would have banned gay teachers from working in state public schools, openly gay elected government official Harvey Milk urged people to “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are.”
Milk gambled that if queer people told their friends they were gay, Californians would realize that they had friends, coworkers and family members who were gay and – out of solidarity – would oppose the proposition. The campaign helped defeat the initiative.
In the 1980s, the gay and lesbian rights movement radicalized in response to the Christian right and AIDS epidemic. Activists used the mantra “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” to demand that people declare their homosexuality. The coming out narrative became a rite of passage, something to be shared with others, and the centerpiece of gay liberation movements.
In your face
In the 1990s, the radical organization Queer Nation took coming out to a new level.
Its members wore T-shirts in Day-Glo colors with slogans such as “PROMOTE HOMOSEXUALITY. GENERIC QUEER. FAGGOT. MILITANT DYKE.” Wearing these T-shirts, they entered heterosexual bars in New York and San Francisco and staged “kiss-ins.” They visited suburban shopping malls outside these same cities and chanted, “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re fabulous – and we’re not going shopping!” Through these tactics, they not only came out, but forced heterosexuals to acknowledge their presence.
The politics of coming out has helped make LGBTQ people more visible and better protected by law. As testimony of this shift, today, marriage equality is the law of the land, the popular TV comedy “Modern Family” features a gay couple and one of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential ticket, Pete Buttigieg, is a gay man.
To be sure, homophobia and transphobia are still alive and well. Still, LGBTQ people have made clear strides in the past half-century and coming out politics has been part of their success.
The success of the LGBTQ movement has inspired other social movements – such as the fat acceptance movement and the undocumented youth movement, among others – to also “come out.”
As I show in my new book, coming out has become what sociologists call a “master frame,” a way of understanding the world that is elastic and inclusive enough for a wide range of social movements to use.
For example, just as Harvey Milk urged queer people to come out for “youngsters who are becoming scared,” so too the undocumented immigrant youth movement has urged undocumented youth to “come out as undocumented and unafraid.”
As one of the immigrant youth movement leaders quoted in my new book explained, Milk’s speech had impressed upon her and her peers that, “If you don’t come out nobody’s gonna know that you’re there. … They’re gonna say or do whatever they want because nobody’s standing up, and you’re not standing up for yourself.”
This campaign has been effective at convincing undocumented youth to be visible, which has been crucial for political mobilization.
The specific language of “coming out, which is so closely associated with LGBTQ rights, allows other social movements to liken their experience to that of LGBTQ people.
For instance, when fat liberation activist Marilyn Wann speaks about how she "came out” as fat, she is not just speaking about a turning point in her personal biography. By using the term “coming out,” she implies that being fat is like being gay – and that, just as homophobia is morally wrong, so too is “fatphobia.” In this context, coming out as fat means owning one’s fatness and refusing to apologize for it.
As my book shows, the multiple meanings of coming out – including coming into community, cultivating self-love, and collectively organizing to promote equality and justice – offer a productive way for social movements to move forward.
Abigail C. Saguy receives funding from the National Science Foundation.