Public Shaming: How NOT to Get Others to Change

At the same time that the serious and thoughtful work of such researchers as Brené Brown has helped us understand the harmful effects of shame, debate continues over whether the purposeful use of public shaming can motivate people to make healthy changes, e.g., to lose weight or recover from an addiction or be a better-behaved child.

Mirroring this issue has been a burgeoning public shaming humor culture in which photos of non-humans committing bad behaviors are posted online. These dogs, cats, bunnies, and even robots often wear signs expressing their various confessions of wrongdoing. Some examples can be found at the following sites:

Turning back to people, the following quote from Brené Brown, in an interview with Mothers Movement, is pertinent to the argument against the shaming method: “Meaningful, healthy change requires us to assess both our strengths and limitations. We change from a place of self-worth, not a place of shame, powerlessness and isolation. Real change requires awareness, insight and thoughtful decision-making – these are rarely present when we are experiencing shame.”

Unfortunately, our culture has long been into shaming, Brown points out. Children especially are often targeted, as for parents and other caretakers “(i)t is both effective and efficient in the short-term.”

She elaborates on how this tendency is then recycled throughout our culture:

…(S)hame is used as a change agent all the time. It’s used in our ‘here and now’ society because you can actually see a swift behavior change when you use shame. The consequences, however, are very serious. Shame promotes change by using fear of rejection, fear of not being accepted and fear of disconnection. Ultimately, shame is very destructive to both the person doing the shaming and the person being shamed. When you talk to 200 women about shame (and now some men as well), you quickly learn how many of our deepest scars are from being shamed and many of our most profound regrets can be traced back to experiences when we shamed others.

An example of shaming gone wrong, as reported in The Huffington Post, is seen in the recent research of psychologist Angelina Sutin et al. showing that it actually hinders weight loss—in fact, victims of weight discrimination were significantly more likely to become obese.

In a Psychology Today blog post, noted addictions expert Dr. Stanton Peele also warns against public shaming. He states that the too common practice of rehab shaming, or “hectoring addicts and alcoholics for their bad behavior,” also fails.

Peele refers to neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitzwhose article in Time, “Being Ashamed of Drinking Prompts Relapse, Not Recovery,” cites new research results that “add to a body of literature suggesting that widely used shaming and humiliating methods of treating alcohol and other drug problems — such as those seen on shows like Celebrity Rehab — are not only ineffective but also may be counterproductive.”

In fact, we just wind up back where we started:

Why doesn’t shame change or deter addictive behavior? Shame is not only an effect of addiction but also can be a key reason why some people turn to drink or other drugs in the first place. Research suggests that people who feel particularly high levels of shame are at increased risk not just for addictions but also for other conditions that can worsen addictions, like depression…

That can set up a vicious cycle: if you drink to escape shame and then embarrass yourself while drinking, you wind up with even more reasons to drink — and to be ashamed of yourself.

Have you ever been shamed into changing your bad habits or behavior? How’d it work out?

One thought on “Public Shaming: How NOT to Get Others to Change

  1. Thanks for the great blog. I talk to clients a lot about the difference between shame and guilt: guilt is something you feel because you did something bad; shame is something you feel because you think you are bad. While guilt can help you focus on behaviors you want to change (particularly as they affect others), shame destroys self-worth and hope.

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