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Can shame be reclaimed for positive behaviour change?
The importance of a nuanced understanding of the emotion of shame and the behaviours that result
Mahatma Gandhi's 1930 Salt March involved Gandhi and his followers marching over 240 miles to the Arabian Sea, where they proceeded to make their own salt, openly protesting against British salt taxation in colonial India. This protest was ultimately successful, shaming the colonial rulers into recognizing their unjust behaviour. A case, surely, where we can argue the emotion of shame had a huge impact on the behaviours of a powerful set of actors.
The extent to which emotion, and shame in particular, might apply to the societal challenges we face today is not always well understood. This is despite a growing recognition that emotions are helpful for us to navigate complex environments; th wealth of academic literature on the properties of emotion and their behavioural consequences are not, it seems, being translated with sufficient nuance and guidance for practitioner use.
To help address this, we draw on the work of philosopher Alexis Shotwell whose work on shame highlights its role in tackling societal challenges relating to ethnicity and gender. Surely there is much that can be learnt here for practitioners, so we set out to explore the topic of shame this powerful and complex emotion and its role in changing behaviour.
We look first at the different components of shame before considering the way it has been used (purposefully or not) in behaviour change campaigns.
1.The political nature of pain
Shame is a ‘self-conscious’ emotion that, along with pride, humiliation and embarrassment, depends on a significant cognitive component. This is because someone enacting them needs some awareness of the self on the one hand and group norms on the other to evaluate one’s self in the light of others. It is perhaps this interface between the ‘me and the we’ that means while these standards are often personal, they will result from the internalisation of social ones.
An example of how this is outlined by Cathy O’Neil in her book ‘The Shame Machine’ in which she talks about the way the US First Lady Nancy Regan campaigned through the 1980’s for people to ‘Just say no’ in relation to drug taking. While this sounds like simple advice, for people suffering from addiction it was shaming, framing addiction as a choice and as such inferring they were guilty of making poor decisions.
While marginalised groups can easily feel shame for failing to meet ‘standards’ set by society, much social justice work refutes the validity of these standards and the emotional responses they create. For example, the LGBTQ+ rights movement challenges cisnormativity and heteronormative societal standards and directly shapes the emotional responses within these groups using ‘Pride’ in a way that challenges notions that shame is legitimate. The #MeToo movement also encourages survivors of sexual harassment and assault to share their experiences, thereby breaking the standards around silence and directly challenging the shame that often surrounds such experiences.
As such, it is important to recognise that shame is an emotion that has political implications – which is why many social justice activists emphasise that individuals should not feel shame for their own alleged shortcomings as they are the result of larger societal structures. For example, poverty is often reframed not as a personal failing but as a result of broader economic and political systems.
To help here, some have made a distinction between toxic shame (where people feel condemned for reasons relating to their personal characteristics such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity and appearance) and productive shame. The former is clearly problematic and social justice has both achieved much but also has much left to do.
Productive shame perhaps offers a way to change individual or collective behaviour in a positive way, challenging problematic attitudes we may hold and behaviours we enact. This is an important point - shame tells us something important about the way our attitudes and behaviour is out of kilter with a set of standards that at least part of our identity is aligned with. So, for example, I may be dismissive of the views of an older person, but the subsequent feelings of shame I feel may remind me of the the way I consider myself as someone who has respect for other people’s views, even if they reflect a set of generationally located values that I may disagree with.
Of course, what is classed as toxic or productive is frequently contested ground. On this basis, if shame is used as part of a campaign to tackle global warming (e.g., if it is used encourage reduce use of private cars) some will see this as productive while others may view it as toxic (e.g., blaming groups of people that have little choice but to use cars to get to work).
O’Neil suggests that productive, (or what she calls ‘healthy’) shame can work its magic but can only does so when the oppressed have been able to establish themselves as defenders of common values - so bed rock values that are agreed upon, where any indiscretion from these is clear and impossible to deny.
So why and how might we want to consider shame as a means to change behavior? We will of course focus on ‘healthy’ shame and to help us we reference the way Shotwell explored shame in her book ‘Knowing Otherwise’.
2.Bringing the tacit to the surface
Shotwell argues that much of our behaviour operates in a way that is often ‘unspoken’ or tacit: we are guided by values and attitudes that are frequently unstated and unexamined. This can mean that we choose not to look too closely, so that things we are uncomfortable with can be ignored and essentially become invisible, a kind of moral blindness.
Shame, however, is one of the ways these unspoken points can come to the surface by the discomfort it creates – it never feels good. As Shotwell puts it:
“Shame seems to stick to our skin, seep in through our pores, run along our veins. It feels as though it is part of our body and our being.”
The visceral nature of it means it is something that we cannot avoid – it consumes our attention and explains why so often people are motivated to avoid the feeling of shame. We can see then that a key role of shame in changing our behaviour is to motivate us to relieve the discomfort of this feeling.
3.The disfluency of shame
Shotwell also suggests we do not automatically know what to do with the feeling of shame that come up, which means we have a gap open up for something new and different to happen. As she puts it:
“Shame can provide a gap in practice; it can stop the conceptual habits we comfortably use to navigate the world. It has a disruptive function.”
Shame can therefore move things from an implicit to a more explicit knowledge, a reflective state. This feels very close to the way we discuss the importance of ‘disfluency’ where we seek to introduce friction into intuitive decision-making process to encourage people to consider their decision making in a more reflective way, creating space for change to happen
4.The interpersonal nature of shame
Shotwell suggests that not only does shame surface things that we have failed to properly examine but it always relates to others. This is because if the view of others does not matter, their perspective can be simply dismissed or ignored - we would not feel shame.
Hence, shame highlights something about the relationship - that we care. This is backed up by psychology research of ‘vignette experiments’ in the United States, India, and Israel that demonstrate beliefs about what actions are shameful closely track how negatively someone would feel if others found out they engaged in the action.
Behavioural economic game experiments find that it is precisely this devaluation from others, rather than the wrongdoing itself, which evokes shame; shame avoidance is calibrated to avoid social judgment. This offers us information about the importance of sympathy and solidarity with other groups and gives us pathways to challenge the social norms that created the behaviours we feel shameful of.
5.Shame & Identity
Shotwell suggests that shame can be thought of as a moment of contradiction in the multiple selves that we comprise, a confrontation between the self we have been and various selves we want to have been. In other words, we challenge the identity we have that has led to the feeling of shame. Shotwell highlights this dissonance in competing identities in relation to racism:
“The experience of shame implies a repudiation of who one was then, and carries the sense that one also was not, inherently, that shamed self. In other words, the experience of shame in the face of racism—one’s own or other people’s—discloses both present racism and also potential for antiracist praxis, embedded in the desire to deny the racist self.”
Interestingly this links through to a huge literature on identity which, as we have explored previously, has significant implications for how we behave in a variety of contexts. If shame is a way in which we can encourage people to enact certain identities and stop others then there is clearly potential for driving change.
6.The action tendencies of shame
Does shame actually create change? This is a hard one to be definitive about – as Stearns points out, some groups may be resistant to shame. He suggests that efforts to use shaming publicly to curb bloated executive salaries have failed to date and people even used information about other executive’s salaries to demand more for themselves. Not exactly a resounding success.
Nevertheless, psychological work has shown that shame is associated with a range of actions including inhibition of wrongdoings, prosocial behaviour, and motivation for self-change. Ilona de Hooge and colleagues found that shame activated both a motivation to restore one’s threatened self-image, and a protect motive to avoid further damage to one’s self-image. Both motives, when acting together, encouraged positive behaviours such as developing new skills or redoing one’s performance.
All of these add up to a powerful argument, in Shotwell’s words, for “shame’s potential capacity to hold open, to not freeze, affective space.”
By unpacking shame in this why, we can understand the ‘why’ of the relation between emotion and behaviour allowing us to think of ways we can consider this for behaviour change activation. This helps, at the very least, to create hypotheses for design and investigation of behaviour change activities - to which we now turn.
SHAME AND BEHAVIOUR CHANGE
A campaign that has explicitly used shame as a means for encouraging pro-social behaviour is Drought Shaming where neighbours see another person or business using water when water restrictions are in place, and report them to the authorities. Unfortunately we could see this as being set up in an antagonistic way so it could easily be seen as ‘punching down’ resulting in conflict and anger rather than identifying and agreeing a common set of values that, as we saw above, is critical.
A more helpful approach might be to crystalise the way that water stress is impacting other people in the community, reinforcing the interpersonal nature of shame. And then helping people to locate and activate more socially responsible identities – this is exactly what the Target 140 campaign did very successful in Queensland Australia, reinforcing that a good Queenslander saves water, and is ‘Water-Wise’. Across the different activations used, there was a targeting of people’s identification as ‘Queenslanders’. In this way it redefined what it meant to be a good Queenslander: one who saves water and is ‘Water-Wise’. Instilling a sense of common civic values, beach cities ordered the public sand-washing shower stations turned off and fountains were quiet. To not participate and fail to follow the social norms would arguably incur a sense of shame, given the social identities were so strong.
This might also offer a backdrop for the recent ‘Say maaate to a mate’ campaign launched by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, aiming to take on sexism. The campaign was developed by Ogilvy’s Behavioral Science Practice division. There has been a lot of debate over the semantics of ‘mate’; and whilst there are a lot of complex issues at play here, but we could see that this as signalling the common values at play and offering a means by which behaviour change can be encouraged by friendship groups, effectively shaming one of them for misogyny. This emotion is not cited as the premise behind the campaign but nevertheless we can certainly read it with this in mind.
Emotions, particularly self-conscious ones such as shame, do not sit outside of a social, cultural and political context – and as such psychologists need to cast their nets wide if they are to properly understand the way in which they might be deployed to encourage change.
The deployment of the shame emotion is not something to be considered lightly given the toxic backdrop and the potential for failure and indeed even making the situation worse. Nevertheless, with the challenges facing the world increasing, there is a need to call on change strategies that can operate at scale. The highly motivating and visceral nature of this emotion alongside its social characteristics that challenge the norms we live by mean that, with caution, we might consider shame is an area that practitioners could examine more closely.
Of course shame is a negative and destructive emotion for many, which requires a huge effort to confront and overcome. But at the same time, as Shotwell and O’Neil have pointed out, in the right hands, shame has the potential to be a force for positive outcomes and as such deserves consideration to tackle the many societal challenges we face.