Sometimes, when other people behave badly (or when we think they do), it is just so tempting to try to shame them. It can feel good—like righting a wrong or putting someone in their place who deserves to be taken down a few notches.
But what are the costs?
Social scientists have learned quite a lot about the psychology of shame, and the results are not pretty.
Here are 11 terrible things linked to the experience of feeling shamed:
It is important to note that in many studies, the documented associations are correlations and therefore only suggestive; they are not definitive demonstrations that shame causes such bad outcomes. So we do need to be careful. But there are some true experiments in the mix, and the conclusions seem to point in only one direction. Shame is not like guilt, which is about particular bad behaviors, and can motivate people to try harder to meet their highest moral standards and ideals.
There are many scholars with expertise on shame, and I'm not one of them. I was driven to take a look at the scholarly literature (especially the article cited at the end) because of a headline published recently about a current presidential candidate, and the stories that followed in its wake: "Jeb Bush: Unwed Mothers Should Be Publicly Shamed." In his 1995 book, Profiles in Character, Bush repeated typical scare stories about the dire fate awaiting the children of single parents (debunked here, here, and elsewhere), then proposed his solution:
"[S]ociety needs to relearn the art of public and private disapproval and how to make those to engage in some undesirable behavior feel some sense of shame."
Ironically, if Bush were to succeed in shaming single parents, they would be even less likely to have successful relationships resulting in the two-parent households he so seems to admire. Instead, they would probably become less effective parents, whose children then really would be more at risk—not because they were being raised by single parents, but because they were being raised by people who had been shamed.
This isn't just about Bush, though: Public shaming has practically become a national pastime. Maybe we should go back to baseball.
Tangney, J. P., Stuewig, J., & Mashek, D. J. (2007). Moral emotions and moral behaviors. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 345-372.