It's quite a real debate in the field of psychology, and there's evidence to support both sides. But a careful review of the seemingly contradictory findings reveals that it's no so much shame that motivates self-control, but anticipating emotions like pride, regret, and remorse.
For example, people who imagine how proud they will feel when they accomplish a goal—from quitting smoking to donating blood—are more likely to follow through and succeed. And anticipating how proud you will be if you resist the temptation of eating a piece of chocolate cake helps people avoid giving in. Anticipated disapproval works too: for example, people are more likely to use condoms when they imagine feeling ashamed if others knew that they had unprotected sex.
Some businesses and communities have started to experiment with social shaming instead of standard penalties for illegal and socially destructive behavior. If you're caught shoplifting from a grocery store in Manhattan's Chinatown, you may be forced to pose for a photo with the item you tried to steal. It will be hung in a wall of shame near the store's cash register, bearing your name, address, and the description "Big Thief."
When Chicago police decided to publicize the names and photos of men arrested for soliciting prostitutes, they weren't so much trying to punish the men who were caught, as they were hoping to strike fear in the hearts of men who were thinking about buying sex. As Chicago mayor Richard Daley said in a press conference defending the policy, "We're telling everyone who sets foot in Chicago, if you solicit a prostitute, you will be arrested. And when you are arrested, people will know. Your spouse, children, friends, neighbors, and employers will know."
Survey research of Chicago men who have paid for sex suggests this policy works. Having their photo or name printed in the local paper was rated as the strongest deterrent for buying sex (87% of the men interviewed said it would make them twice). This trumped jail time, having their driver's license suspended, and having to pay a fine of $1000 or more.
Before we get too excited about the power of shame, we need to distinguish the self-control benefits of anticipating feeling regret and remorse, and the willpower-draining effects of actually feeling ashamed. As a preventive measure, shame may work. But once the deed is done, shame is more likely to inspire self-sabotage than self-control.
For example, gamblers who feel the most ashamed following a major loss are the most likely to "chase" the lost money by gambling more and borrowing money to try to recoup their losses. The worse a person feels about how much they drank they night before, the more they drink that night and the next—the shame drives them back to the bottle.
Welcome to one of the biggest threats to willpower worldwide: the what-the-hell effect. First coined by dieting researchers Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman, the what-the-hell effect describes a cycle of indulgence, shame, and greater indulgence. These researchers noticed that many dieters would feel so bad about any lapse—a piece of pizza, a bite of cake—that they would say, "What the hell, I already blew my diet, what's the point, I might as well eat the whole thing."
It's not just eating the wrong thing that triggers the "what-the-hell" effect in dieters. Eating more than other people can create the same feelings of shame, and lead to eating even more (or binging later in private). Any setback can create the same downward spiral. In one not-so-nice study, Polivy and Herman rigged a scale to make dieters think they had gained five pounds. The dieters felt depressed, guilty, and disappointed with themselves—but instead of resolving to lose the weight, they promptly turned to food to fix those feelings.
Dieters aren't the only ones susceptible to the "what-the-hell" effect. The cycle can happen with any willpower challenge. It's been observed in smokers trying to quit, alcoholics trying to stay sober, shoppers trying to stick to a budget, and even child molesters trying to control their sexual impulses.
Crucially, it's not the first giving in that guarantees the bigger relapse. It's the feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control, and loss of hope that follow the relapse. Once you're stuck in the cycle, it can seem like there is no way out except to keep going. This leads to even bigger willpower failures and more misery as you then berate yourself (again) for giving in (again). But the thing you're turning to for comfort can't stop the cycle, because it only generates more feelings of shame.
What's the solution? As I've written about many times on this blog, self-compassion is far more effective and motivating than self-criticism and shame. Here are a few resources to get you started:
This blog post is an adaptation of material found in Kelly McGonigal's latest book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Penguin/Avery).