There are a lot of topics in daily life that many people avoid mentioning outright because they're slightly "icky" or it's considered "private" or somehow mildly taboo. One of these things I've run into recently (over the past year or so) is breastfeeding.

It's something that (in the US at least) there's a major movement towards normalizing it as something that's "natural" and that women shouldn't be ashamed to do it in public or talk about it. I've never personally had issues with it - Austin is pretty liberal and anyone speaking up about it being "disgusting" or "private" would likely get shamed into shutting up.

At work, I've had to deal with people asking where I'm going when I'm headed to "relieve some pressure" or "be a cow" (express milk) for later consumption by my infant son. I have a few responses I use including the two joke ones above and "I'm going to pump" but also including answers that don't mention what I'm going to do specifically.

I've generally tried to make some reference to it because I do agree that it's a natural thing that women shouldn't be ashamed of. I'm lucky that my workplace has a nice space set aside for this purpose (even with legal requirements to do so, many offices do not or have places that are basically a closet).

This is merely an example, though - I'm sure that there are dozens of other similar subjects (medical issues or sexuality or religion) and the specific topic isn't really the crux of my question so please don't use this question as a place to debate breastfeeding's benefit.

I've seen articles like this one encouraging people to talk more about taboo subjects, with a list of recommended topics to talk about more but I think it's really focusing on actual conversations.

We’re attuned to issues that were once swept under the carpet, many of us accept and embrace different sexualities and gender identities, and thousands of people confront uncomfortable issues like sexism, racism, and gender norms, among other things, every single day. Humans have come a long way! Unfortunately, we still have a very long way to go. There are still a lot of taboo subjects out there that aren’t touched upon often enough, and we really need to start talking about them more.

The article mentions talking about them more but doesn't say whether such discussions actually cause any change in people's perceptions of the topics.

What I want to know is, do studies show that mentioning a "taboo" topic to someone has a "normalizing" effect in relation to that topic on those people? If it does, I'm happy to continue but if it doesn't, it may be better to stop risking making my friends and coworkers uncomfortable.

  • 10
    @Hamlet I specifically DO NOT want personal experience answers. As the question asker I am allowed to define the question and what I'm asking for. I'm asking for studies, not for personal experience. That's how the question breadth is limited.
    – Catija
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 2:39

3 Answers 3


TL;DR Yes.

Here's one interesting study that actually set out to see if they could reproduce the finding of a previous fraudulent study...


You gotta love science, after peer review.

... volunteers from the Los Angeles LGBT Center and SAVE, a Florida LGBT organization asked voters what they thought about the recent law? [protecting trans rights] Would they watch this video and talk about their reactions? Could they talk about a time when they had been on the receiving end of negative judgment or stigma? Did that help them to understand what a transgender life is like? Did that change their views?

It was a deliberate strategy, and it worked—durably and dramatically. These ten-minute conversations, known as “deep canvassing,” substantially reduced prejudice against transgender people for at least three months, even in the face of anti-transgender ad campaigns. Not all the voters were swayed, but on average, they experienced a drop in transphobia greater than the fall in homophobia among average Americans from 1998 to 2012. The canvassers, through ten-minute chats, had produced the equivalent of 14 years of social change.


Same story covered by NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/04/07/473383882/study-finds-deep-conversations-can-reduce-transgender-prejudice

The emphasis was mine, but I suspect that it may be the key to helping people get over some of their prejudices regarding taboo and formerly taboo issues.

It's not just talking about it, but how you talk about it. Most people have been stigmatised, ridiculed, or discriminated against for something at some point in their lives. If you can get people to remember that feeling and then coax them towards understanding that other people feel that way because of X, then there's a chance that you can get them feel some sympathy and maybe even a little empathy.

Anecdotally I can sort of confirm these findings through personal experience. It's one thing to have ideas about a group of people or an issue, but it's another thing to actually sit and talk with someone directly effected by those ideas. I've dealt with a pretty good handful of people who were openly phobic until they got to know me, many of them came around eventually.

Also... I notice that people around me have grown accustomed to my excentricity, I regularly talk about "taboo" subjects and they rarely/never seem shocked or unsettled when I bring up issues of sexuality, gender, foul language, divisive politics, or php so there might be something to be said for desensitizing through exposure. Unfortunately I couldn't find a study on that...

  • If anyone is wondering, I brought up the previous fraudulent study because I was aware that if it wasn't mentioned people would assume that I was referring to that study.
    – apaul
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 5:00
  • @peufeu chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/66449/…
    – apaul
    Commented Sep 30, 2017 at 22:12
  • Does the cited study and personal experience really back up the exact nuance of what the question is asking about: whether conversations about a topic increase acceptance? Isn't this proving that the more specific subset of conversations that get people to relate to the topic increase acceptance? (I do think this is extremely valuable knowledge for those who don't know about it, because getting people to think about a situation from the perspective of the other person has been proven in many studies to be very effective - I'm just not sure this answers the exact question asked?)
    – mtraceur
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 3:46

The article you quoted mentioned 'discussing' taboo topics.

The article mentions talking about them more but doesn't say whether such discussions actually cause any change in people's perceptions of the topics.

But your question body suggests you just 'mention' them.

Do studies show that mentioning a "taboo" topic to someone has a "normalizing" effect in relation to that topic on those people?

You were right stating this about the article:

I think it's really focusing on actual conversations.

From what I read in your question, you're not 'discussing' the breastfeeding with your colleagues, but you only mention it in passing when you're going to do it. For me, there's a significant difference between 'discussing/talking about' and 'mentioning' a topic. So for the sake of this answer, I'm working from the premise that you are having an actual talk/discussion about a taboo subject because that's the part I think that can be answered.

I'd like you to take a look at this web comic. No really, read it. It does a really good job at explaining 'the backfire effect'. This effect is the explanation for 'why' people feel uncomfortable when you discuss topics with them that are taboo (for them), and it's also of huge importance as an answer to whether such discussions actually cause any change in people's perceptions of the topics, the answer being that it's very dependent on the person with which these things are discussed.

From the dictionary:

A taboo is a vehement prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake.

So basically, when trying to normalise the discussion of a taboo topic, you're challenging somebodies belief that that specific topic shouldn't be discussed, at all. That's a difficult thing to do. Because of the backfire effect, openly challenging an idea (that you shouldn't discuss things) might actually confirm for those people the idea that this is exactly something that shouldn't be discussed.

Based on a list of sources I have read:

  • this website, mentioning that cancer is now a lot less stigmatised than before.
  • this article, about the backfire effect and how understanding it can help you.
  • this webpage, more information about the backfire effect, also in relation to 'taboo' topics like stem-cell research.
  • this abstract, about political misconceptions, information and backfire effect.
  • this web page, stating that weaker arguments are more likely to change a persons mind.
  • the first page of this article, encouraging discussing menstruation in the classroom.
  • this article about the positive effects of discussing sex with an older generation.

I've made the following conclusions:

  • I've found no evidence that casually mentioning taboo topics alone (I'm going to breastfeed, I'm having a period, I'm homosexual) makes these topics any less taboo to discuss for people. Mentioning it gives a signal that you are up to further discussing the topic, although the people for whom the topic is an absolute taboo aren't very likely to come and discuss it further with you. They might even go into defensive mode as a result of a backfire effect, and use it to further build up their own views.
  • You might spark curiosity by making statements about taboo topics. If people are even slightly interested, it's nice to know that there's somebody there with whom they can discuss things. That there's a person there to answer all the awkward questions, and speak from experience. But this requires a 'willing to learn' attitude from the other person.

If you're going to have a real talk/discussion about a taboo topic and you want to change a person's perspective of that topic, a lot depends on how you discuss the topic AND how open the other person is to changing their perception, but if these are both present, it will certainly help in normalising the topic

Do studies show that mentioning a "taboo" topic to someone has a "normalizing" effect in relation to that topic on those people? If it does, I'm happy to continue but if it doesn't, it may be better to stop risking making my friends and coworkers uncomfortable.

I'd say the benefits outweigh the risks on this point. You're making a statement that you're ready to discuss these things people, when they are ready. If you're making people very uncomfortable, they will show/tell you. And even that opens up a conversation in which you can explain why you aren't uncomfortable mentioning the topic. So, after the research I have done, I'd say just continue what you're doing, until you're asked to do otherwise, then respect that person wishes if you can.

  • 1
    +1, great answer. Do think it would be worthwhile to add mention of studies about the effects of such conversations/statements on third parties who overhear the topics mentioned? I know that there's evidence that different people have a different number of other-people-doing-the-thing before they start also proactively doing-the-thing and that this is well studied in the context of behaviors in general, including protesting (suggestive that it applies norm-challenging in general), though I don't know of any about conversations about taboo topics specifically.
    – mtraceur
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 4:11

Reading the example taboo topic of breastfeeding made me want to share how breastfeeding and the inability to breastfeed affected my family. That isn't the question, but it would be public evidence of normalization. Someone else might have read the same example and thought, "that kind of thing shouldn't be discussed in public" Which would have been evidence against normalization if the thought were known. But it is the nature of a taboo that it isn't discussed, and when it is discussed, people tend to characterize their comments in the most PC way, which makes an accurate study on the topic problematic.

In order to understand what type of study we are looking for, we first need to define what it means to normalize a topic for someone. That is up to @Catija, but it appears from context that for her, normalize would mean that she could discuss breastfeeding with a coworker, without that coworker feeling uncomfortable about it. I think she would view that as a positive result.

Intuitively, her joking mentions of the topic signal that someone in the office is comfortable discussing the topic. That is most likely to invite further discussion. For example, a male coworker previously shy about the topic may be emboldened to ask you(as the defacto expert) "If a woman is breastfeeding in public, is it ok to look?" Is that still a positive result? The joking could make some momentarily slightly uncomfortable, even to the extent that someone makes a conscious choice to avoid discussing it, but I find that unlikely, even less likely that such person would ever make that decision known.

Therefore we are looking for a study that concludes mentioning a taboo topic makes it less taboo.

A Google search found

Deconstructing Organizational Taboos: The Suppression of Gender Conflict in Organizations http://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.1.4.339 I remember hearing a lecture years ago about this study.

also PMCID: PMC4091654 Responses to gestational weight management guidance: a thematic analysis of comments made by women in online parenting forums https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4091654/

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