Shaming: Poison or Medicine?

We have all experienced shaming in our lives. Whether it was in our school, internet, or home, we were shamed for what we did wrong. For instance, when school teachers punish their students for their wrong doing, they usually do it with good intentions — to make their students learn their lesson and be better next time. Yet, sometimes this process of shaming and the intentions can be stained with people’s illusory self-righteousness. Although shaming can be healthy, it can be detrimental if it’s used to dehumanize and discourage an individual.

How is shaming good for you?

Shaming is embarrassing, and most of us don’t like our weaknesses to be revealed. But apparently, shaming works well in some cases. Sage Steele, a ESPN commentator, used to struggle with maintaining her grades in Indiana University. Steele was called in by the Dean of Admissions office, and was told that she would be kicked out if she couldn’t raise her GPA to at least 3.0 in the current semester. Steele was labeled as an embarrassment to the school by the office, and she was embarrassed too. This “private” shaming motivated Steele to ask for help from others more openly and work harder, and thus she was able to maintain her GPA over 3.0.

In a town in Florida, public shaming is used to treat people who “shoplift”. The “shoplifters” are required to hold a sign that says “I stole from this store”. Of course, no one would want to do that. I’m sure you and I wouldn’t want to do that in public. Most of us want to do the right thing, so we wouldn’t want to be portrayed as a horrible person. Yet, this method discouraged the shoplifters to commit the same mistake. Many shoplifters who held the same sign felt bitterness and decided to never shoplift.

Shaming isn’t preferable, but I think we can agree on the fact that shaming can sometimes drive people to do things that will make them a better person.

When the medicine becomes poison

When we shame an individual, we say that we are doing it for the good, for justice, and sometimes for “growth”. But are we really keeping those intentions pure every time we shame a person for whatever reason?

I’m sure many of you are aware of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Ever since the news spread, especially with the rise of the internet, Lewinsky became known to the whole world. People labeled her “bimbo”, “slut”, “pimp”, and etc. Obviously, Lewinsky felt devastated from the global negative comments.

Tyler Clementi, a freshmen in the Rutgers University, was cyber-bullied after a webcam footage of his intimacy with another man was released online. Later, he jumped off from the George Washington Bridge and died.


This dehumanizing cyber-bullying isn’t unique to Lewinsky and Tyler. Justine Sacco’s one wrong tweet almost cost her life. Sacco posted a tweet that said, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before going to South Africa from Heathrow. Upon her arrival in South Africa, Sacco was devastated from the realization that her tweet had become a center of global attention in Twitter. In the beginning, philanthropists talked about donating to CARE in Africa, yet people started condemning, criticizing, and dehumanizing Sacco because of her “racist” and disgusting tweet. Sacco was later fired from her company , and most people exploited her tweet to make her suffer as much as possible.

We thought that we were doing something righteous and were serving justice when we criticized people like Lewinsky, Tyler, and Sacco. But excessive public shaming can cost human’s life. No one really deserves what the three people have experienced, and to feel hated by everyone. So why do/did we do this to our fellow human beings?

Tribalism, “Othering”, and its Consequences

We have innate desire to be part of a group — to be part of something grand. An evolutionary explanation can also suggest that we have been relying on the “safety in numbers” rule. We are likely to survive if we are in groups (something like “united we stand, divided we fall”).

Being a part of a certain group may be good and all that, but it’s unhealthy if the group collectively participates in unintelligent activities that involves “othering”. It’s unhealthy because people fail to recognize and comprehend the opposing point of view, and do not filter incredible information. Mona Amer, an associate professor of psychology in AUC, points out that:

“When people find home in one of the groups, they filter out information that is not in line with their perspective. This mental filtering makes them unable to see all sides of the situation because they only pick bits and pieces that fit their own perspective, whether that means using non-credible sources of information, buying into fantastical rumors or sharing Facebook posts that bolster their point of view. This heightens their sense of security and continuously affirms their view of the other group as ‘lesser than.’ It’s psychologically reassuring when we see that the other group is bad and that we are on the good side”

In addition, Amer stresses that:

“Critical thinking diminishes when people are afraid or want to believe something and need to feel satisfied that their position is correct. There is also a deficit in media literacy, which makes it difficult to distinguish what is credible from what is not”

People were asked if “they prefer a life-saving diagnosis from a computer that was 1,000 miles away, or the exact same diagnosis from a computer in their town” in one study. Majority preferred local diagnosis. This study suggests that people prefer their group over other groups (some may argue that it’s to stay safe by choosing local, but there is some implicit bias in that decision).

From the Implicit Association Test (IAT), it was noted by Chris Mooney that “when negative words and black faces are paired together, you’re a better, faster categorizer. Which suggests that racially biased messages from the culture around you have shaped the very wiring of your brain”. According to David Amodio, a psychologist at the New York University’s psychology department, “the capacity to discern ‘us’ from ‘them’ is fundamental in the human brain” (Amodio, 2014). A paper by Tadmor, a psychologist at the Recanati School of Business at Tel Aviv University, and her colleagues suggest that “racial prejudice can play a direct and causal role in making people less creative” (Tadmor, Chao, et al, 2012). In an experiment, people were required to think about different uses for bricks. People without essentialized racial categories scored better in this creativity test, as opposed to those who had racial categories.

Most of the time, we criticize people like Lewinsky, Saccco, and Tyler to serve justice and spread righteousness in the society. This group intolerance makes us accept others’ inappropriate criticisms, even if it may be worse than the victim’s comment. The delusional self-righteousness neglects real injustice that occurs within the mob, not the victim.

No matter how unprejudiced and neutral we consider ourselves to be, we all have implicit bias to certain degrees. This bias and tribalism can impede our creativity, and induce unintelligent activities. And unfortunately, it may cost someone’s life.

Stay safe

Peer pressure seems to be calling us to either one of the sides of an argument or beliefs. How can we survive in the midst of this tribalism and mob effects? First of all, to stay away from the mob, we need to ensure that we are maintaining the “middle ground”. It’s those kind of people that can observe things objectively and have tolerance to differences.

Lewinsky stresses, “the more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behavior like cyberbullying, trolling, some forms of hacking, and online harassment”. To change this, Lewinsky emphasizes that “changing behavior begins with evolving beliefs”.

We can avoid becoming a victim of this mob effect by simply not posting what is considered or misunderstood as an inappropriate and unpleasant comment. We can also prevent ourselves from becoming a victim of nonintellectual activities and ignorance by not participating in the “othering” process. Instead, show compassion. Show tolerance. Show love. However outrageous the comment may be, try displaying these qualities to both the prey and the predator of the cyber world and the real world.

You may not realize it, but somewhere out there someone really needs your company and positive vibes — a virtual one maybe.