Shame is not a lever lightly pulled



Occasionally, I see people invoking ‘shame’* as a strategy to some end. That people ‘should be ashamed for doing shameful things’ and that ‘shaming people for doing shameful things is good’. I have to admit that I find this mindset somewhat baffling, for a number of reasons.

Without getting into the ins and outs of what shame ‘is’, exactly, I think we can agree that shame is a negative feeling we have in certain situations, related to/overlapping with guilt, or to just generally ‘feeling bad’*. I think that ‘feeling bad’ captures a wide range of situations, but the word ‘shame’ applies when the ‘feeling bad’ is in response to a social response (or a projected potential social response) to an action we just did. An illustration: a child breaks a window and feels shame, even though no-one is around, because that child projects how people will react to her breaking that window. (This article is an extremely simplified overview. For a far more in-depth and technical article, see end note. For those of you with a background in Psychology: I am intentionally conflating guilt/shame/embarrassment as these terms are often conflated in the vernacular. This article is not intended to be an explanation of the difference between those things, but an argument against trying to evoke that group of emotional responses)

There are two important criteria to be evaluated when trying to determine whether or not a particular tactic is ‘good’.

  1. Is it effective? Given the goal that I want to achieve, does using this tactic actually move me towards that goal? Is effective in the long-term, or only in the short-term?
  2. Is it ethical? If the tactic is, itself, harmful, and there is no other less-harmful effective option, then yes this tactic may well be the least unethical choice. Conversely, if there are other less-harmful effective options, then the use of this tactic is unethical.

A quick aside at this point: if something is ineffective, then it’s largely irrelevant whether the practice is ethical or not. We only need worry if something is ethical if it first can be shown to be effective. (The converse is not always true: rarely, all of the available choices may be unethical, but we still need to make an effective choice in that circumstance: thus something being unethical does not render checking its effectiveness irrelevant)

Trigger warning: slightly violent imagery ahead.

An example that clearly falls apart when placed under the above scrutiny: beating people with sticks. (note: I am not equating shaming people with beating people with sticks. This example is purely to illustrate that this approach is successful at filtering out the ‘obviously wrong’, at the least)

If someone is doing something we don’t like, is beating them with a stick likely to stop them doing it? Yes.

Is it effective in the long term? Well, if we factor in the possibility that they may return with friends with sticks to beat us with sticks, then clearly this is an ineffective long-term strategy. The long-term costs here would seem to be that unless I am the only person with access to sticks, then I am (at some point) going to be beaten. So ‘no’ to this one.

Is it ethical? Beating people with sticks is a harm. There is almost always a less-harmful (and effective) method to get people to stop doing something (or to deter them in the future), so this option is unethical.

So: this is only effective in the short-term (at best), and unethical. This is not a ‘good’ tactic.

Compare with ‘reasoning with someone so that they understand what is wrong with their position’. Again, this is an extreme case simply to ‘book-end’ the above tool.

If someone is doing something we don’t like, is ‘reasoning with them’ likely to be effective? History tells us that yes, in the long run, this is often (but not always) effective.

Is it effective in the long term? Well, if people have actually been convinced of the error of their actions, not only will the avoid doing them themselves, but they often engage with their own community to discourage others (I present Nathan Phelps and John Loftus as but two illustrations).

Is it ethical? ‘Reasoning with people’, in and of itself, is not harmful, and thus is ethical.

So: likely to be long-term effective, possibly short-term effective, no negative repercussions, and ethical.

Reasoning with people is, therefore, a ‘good’ tactic.

So is shaming people an effective tactic (or, at least, more effective than reasoning with them)? What does it take to shame someone? Is it even possible to induce shame in someone who does not shame your ideological position?

In order to shame someone for something they have done (I’m including ‘saying something’ within ‘doing’), it’s necessary to the definition of shame that they feel bad that they have done that particular thing. If they don’t feel that what they are doing is bad prior to your attempt to shame them, what would shaming them look like? Is shaming even possible given that, a priori, they don’t see what they’re doing as wrong? Well, it depends.

Let’s imagine that I take a trip to Saudi Arabia with my fictional sister. And let’s assume that my fictional sister enjoys dressing in a casual Vancouver fashion (i.e. summer = short sleeved t-shirts). Under the cultural precepts I’m told are dominant in Saudi Arabia, I should be ashamed that I “let” my sister walk around like that. If a group of locals sat me down and attempted to shame me… How would that work, exactly? Given that I don’t even agree to the grounds of the conversation, how could they possibly evoke shame in me? If they publicly berated me, I would definitely feel embarrassed or possibly humiliated (and certainly seek to avoid their company in the future), but shame? Frankly, I simply cannot imagine feeling that way under those circumstances.

If the goal of the people involved in the above was to simple get me to leave their company (and possibly Saudi Arabia), then the tactic would be effective. If the goal was to make me attempt to control my fictional sister’s dress, generally (i.e. when I’m beyond the bounds of their reach)? Complete and utter failure. Furthermore, insofar as psychological harm is a harm, then this kind of verbal aggression is a harm, and thus (given the less-harmful effective alternatives), is unethical.

Taking a second example of bigotry against women. Let’s take a guy (Takuma) who unambiguously indulges in bigotry against women, and the people around that person want to make him stop. They have a range of choices available to them, ‘shaming’ being one of them. Let’s assume that this guy is capable of feeling shame in this particular set of circumstances. Let’s assume that it requires only a small amount of social pressure (no shouting, yelling, nor even quiet verbal abuse is needed), only simple admonitions of ‘why do you hate women?’

Note here that explaining that he is hurting women isn’t an attempt to shame: it’s an attempt to explain the connection between his behaviour, and the repercussions of that behaviour on the people around him. If this is what a person considers ‘shaming’ behaviour, then they are mistaken as to how to describe what they are doing (c.f. ‘slut-shaming’: no attempt to reason with the people is involved, the goal is to make the women in question feel bad). The general thrust of shaming behaviour is “you are bad [for doing x], and you should feel bad [for doing x]!”

Firstly, it needs to be noted that even within the same culture (even the same family), evoking shame is a difficult undertaking. Shame is an ‘opt-in’ emotion: if I have decided that what you say is irrelevant, you cannot shame me. If I have realised that you are attempting to emotionally manipulate me, then the odds are you cannot shame me (embarrassment and humiliation are still on the table, but not shame/guilt). If I have other friends who are supportive of my actions, it is highly unlikely that you can shame me.

But lets table how difficult it is to actually evoke shame in someone, and assume that we are successful in causing Takuma to feel shame. How does Takuma respond to this?

  1. Takuma reflects on the issue, and (at some point, if not immediately) sees his behaviour as the source of the shaming, and thus his shame. He reduces/stops his bigoted behaviour (or, at least, this particular type of act).
  2. Takuma realises that what he did was wrong, but feels that the shaming was merely aimed at wounding and thus he resents the people who shamed him. He reduces his bigoted behaviour, but no longer listens to the people who shamed them. He will not be shamed by them in the future.
  3. Takuma is unclear as to what, exactly, was wrong about what he did, but is very clear that he has been attacked. He avoids expressing his bigoted behaviour around those specific people, but is otherwise unchanged.
  4. Takuma is unclear as to what, exactly, was wrong about what he did, but is very clear that he has been attacked. He changes nothing, but now harbours a grudge against those people who have (in his mind) unjustly attacked him.
  5. Takuma sees absolutely nothing wrong with what he did, and maintains his behaviour. He no longer listens to people who ‘merely’ (in his mind) attack him.
  6. Takuma sees absolutely nothing wrong with what he did, and maintains his behaviour. He actively enjoys frustrating the attempts of people to manipulate him, and so increases his bigoted behaviour, purely to provoke a reaction.

So assuming that number 1 is the goal here, how likely is shaming going to be to get to that goal? Of course, it’s not merely flat odds (1 in 6 for each), as it’s highly dependent on Takuma’s personality as to which way he goes when pushed, nor is the above list exhaustive of the possible responses that Takuma could make. Shame is something that is highly unpredictable. When you are shaming someone, there are at least two things they may respond to:

  1. Your attempt to shame them (successful or not)
  2. Their feeling of shame should you be successful

When you attempt to shame people, this isn’t a highly sophisticated move that people are unaware of: your blatant attempt at manipulation will be noticed, and reacted against. How your mark reacts against the attempted manipulation is highly specific to that individual (which includes all cultural and social influences of their past).

Secondly, should you be successful in evoking shame in that individual, you have zero control over how they express that feeling. Shame may be a wakeup call for that individual, a realisation that they have done something wrong. However, that feeling of shame make, in turn, evoke a feeling of shame that they are feeling shame. This response can trigger rage, even violence. All highly unpredictable.

Furthermore, even if the person in question withdraws from the immediate situation (a result which one cannot reasonably claim is ‘likely’), should they seek shelter amongst their own ingroup and find it, they will (to some extent) be less susceptible to such shaming in the future: shaming depends on a sense of isolation from ones ingroup. If your ingroup actively/visibly supports your position, shame is highly unlikely to be evoked (even by another a member of your ingroup).

So before we even get to the question of whether or not emotionally manipulating someone to feel bad about themselves and what they have done is ethical, it’s not even clear that such a move is effective (generally).

And finally, you may read all of this and think ‘so what if the long-term effects are negligible, I just want this person to shut up, right now’. Your goal isn’t long-term betterment (generally), but short-term emotional control of a person by appeal to making them feel bad? I believe we have a term for that particular action: bullying. Now, if you want to make an argument that bullying people into silence is ethical, then go for it. But I don’t fancy your chances.


*Whether the goal is shame, guilt, humiliation, whatever, all of the above applies to a greater or lesser degree. Let’s not get hung up on the specific word ‘shame’: the articles linked to below indicate that these emotions are not as distinct as some of us may believe them to be.

[This post draws heavily from "The meanings of shame: Implications for legal reform.", by Toni M. Massaro which can be found in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol 3(4), Dec, 1997. pp. 645-704 (DOI: 10.1037/1076-8971.3.4.645). Rather than simply duplicate all the relevant footnotes, I would suggest that anyone interested in further reading check out the original paper

Additional reading on the complexities of shame:

Evoking Shame and Guilt: A Comparison of Two Theories; Fromson, Paul M.; Psychological Reports, 2006, 98, 99-105

The Approach and Avoidance Function of Guilt and Shame Emotions: Comparing Reactions to Self-Caused and Other-Caused Wrongdoing; Schmader, Toni & Lickel, Brian; Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 30, No. 1, March 2006 (DOI: 10.1007/s11031-006-9006-0)

Relationship of belief systems to shame and guilt; Harvey, O.J. et al; Personality and Individual Differences 25 (1998) 769-783]


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