Put to Shame—and Better for It
Psychologists have long seen shaming as destructive, but new science suggests we can harness it to motivate transgressors to make amends
When Valerie Starks, a mother from Denver, found out that her 13-year-old daughter was posing as an older teenager to post raunchy photographs to the Web, she took to social media to teach her a lesson. She berated her child in a Facebook video that spread like wildfire in May 2015—in less than a week it had more than 11 million views. Starks was not alone. In the past year numerous parents have used social media to punish their kids.
Throughout history communities have used public humiliation to discourage rule breakers from further bad behavior. And today those of us who commit moral misdeeds can be exposed on the Internet and subject to chastising from all over the world. From the Twitter storm that raged over multiple accounts of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual predations to the #droughtshaming campaign in California, social-media shaming has become a common occurrence. A digitally smeared reputation is like a permanent scarlet letter, displayed for all to see in the grand and timeless expanse of the Web.
Shaming is one of many forms of punishment, and psychologists puzzle over what kind of penalties encourage reform. Studies have shown that inducing shame might not be the best choice, as it often leads to counterproductive reactions, such as avoidance and aggression, and can be destructive to one's well-being.
Recent evidence has brought about a surprising revelation, however. Under certain circumstances, shame may spur positive change, including cooperation and a desire to make amends. Psychologists are finding that there are many shades of shame—some better than others in promoting constructive behavior—and that the way we communicate disapproval to a wrongdoer can lead to drastically different outcomes. This new research could transform the way we handle crime and punishment, whether in the courtroom or at home.