Does Shame Work?

In nine months and more than 290,000 deaths as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has faced a crisis within a crisis. In addition to dealing with the spread of the highly contagious virus, overcrowded hospitals and overworked medical personnel, we also have to deal with people who still don’t think the pandemic is real and / or who refuse to participate in public health strategies, such as wearing face masks. faces.

We now have promising vaccines, but it will be several months before the general public gets the chance to get vaccinated (and even they, some people, will likely refuse to do so ). And between now and then, we have to make it through the holidays and the cold and the flu season .

The situation is becoming more horrifying every day, and it is difficult to know what to do next. Public health officials, scientists and medical professionals have been pleading with us for months to abide by the rules of physical distancing and disguise. And yet, here we are reaching a record number of deaths from COVID every day.

While most of us are not tasked with convincing the entire population of the reality of a pandemic, we may find ourselves in situations where we are trying to reason with friends or family members, trying to get them to take the most basic precautions. – how to stay at home this year on vacation.

If science and data don’t work, we may be tempted to turn to another strategy: shame. But is shame an effective way to get the other person to change their behavior? We see it all the time on social media and can rely on it ourselves, but does it really work – and if so, how effective is it in the long run? To find out, Lifehacker spoke with several experts.

How do people react to being ashamed

The idea of ​​using shame as a way to induce someone to improve their behavior has been around since ancient times , primarily in the form of punishment associated with public humiliation. Public judgment is unlikely to be an option for you if you want to convince your father to wear a mask, but the historical perspective helps illustrate how long we have tried to use negative emotions as a way to change the behavior of others. And interpersonal shame – between family members and groups of friends – works in a similar way. But does it work when it comes to stricter public health compliance?

The question of whether shame is “effective” at all is complex in itself: although it can “work” in the sense that it elicits a reaction by determining whether it is an “effective” strategy for achieving meaningful changes in health-related behavior , and ideally, not doing more harm than good is another matter entirely.

According to Dr. Alexandra Brewis-Slade , a biocultural anthropologist at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University and author of The Lazy, Crazy, and Disgusting: Stigma and the Reversal of Global Health , this is an important difference. “Shame is a highly experienced emotion that can lead people to obey when shame is associated with a violation of certain social expectations,” she tells Lifehacker. “The real problem is when shame turns into stigma.”

What shame does to our brains

To better understand why people respond to shame, Dr. Tara Swart – a neuroscientist, psychiatrist, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan and author of The Source: Secrets of the Universe, Brain Science – says it’s important to think about the role our emotions play in accepting solutions. According to Swart, there are eight basic human emotions, each of which is associated with different levels of specific neurotransmitters. There are five survival emotions on this spectrum: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and shame.

“These are emotions that people never want to experience because they activate the stress hormone, cortisol,” Swart tells Lifehacker. “So it’s actually bad for your body, and you can get headaches, muscle aches, insomnia, or indigestion as a result.”

Understandably, as humans, we will go to great lengths to avoid such feelings – which is why Swart says that shame can be a simple tactic to motivate people. But this does not mean that we should use it. She explains that shame is not only a low-hanging fruit of persuasion techniques, but also a negative approach to behavior change.

Dr. Caroline Leaf , a neurologist and mental health expert, and author of a forthcoming book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess , agrees. “Shame is a very negative emotion that challenges a person’s personality and tends to either force people to defend themselves or aggressively, or force them to withdraw to protect themselves,” she says. “Shame is essentially telling someone that they are bad, rather than making them think they might be doing something that will have negative consequences. Shame can lead to constant, floating anxiety and can even block someone’s ability to reason logically. ”

Why shame can do more harm than good

When it comes to trying to convince those close to us to take the pandemic seriously, it’s safe to assume that our attempts at persuasion come from a good source. We want our friends and family to stay safe and healthy, and that we all do our part to advance public health action. And while people can have a strong reaction to being ashamed – even perhaps improving their behavior in the short term – communication strategies can also be destructive.

This is because, as Bryuis-Slade explains, shame can quickly turn into stigma: “That is, it is not just a passing feeling, but becomes part of a person’s social identity.” She uses the example of the distinction between “smoker” and “smoker” – the latter usually implies that the person is unhealthy and possibly disgusting. “Stigmatized identity pushes people down and out of society,” says Bruis-Slade. “The more marginalized or socially vulnerable a person is, the worse this process will be and the further he will be pushed down and down.”

After years of working in disaster preparedness and management in the public, private and non-profit sectors, Patrick Hardy – Certified Emergency Manager and President of Disaster Hawk , a disaster preparedness and response application – has used shame countless times in trying to get people to change their behavior during emergencies.

But it doesn’t work, says Hardy. Consider people’s track records as cognitive dissonance as evidence – for example, those who continue to smoke despite knowing the negative health effects. “Another example is during a storm, when people drive their cars through dangerous flood waters,” he tells Lifehacker. “They know it’s not safe, but they believe [something bad] will not happen to them, and that they seem to know the floods better than anyone, so they continue to do so even in spite of the very gloomy statistics “.

Not only is this use of shame ineffective, Hardy says, but it can reinforce the negative behaviors you’re trying to convince someone to change, causing them to actively seek ways to avoid the unpleasant feelings associated with the emotion.

In situations like this, Hardy said, people who are ashamed tend to resort to one of two strategies: (1) seeking information that supports their own point of view (for example, wearing a mask isn’t as effective as people say, or labeling discordant information) “Fake news”) or (2) downplaying their own behavior (for example, declaring that they don’t need to wear masks because they skip the gym and wash their hands regularly). In any case, this conversation will not be productive for anyone.

Is shame a form of manipulation?

Even if we have the best intentions, using shame to force someone to act differently can be seen as a form of manipulation. “Almost all of the proposed behavior changes are manipulations,” explains Bruis-Slade. “This gentle coercion, based on our desire to conform to social ideals or expected norms and be considered a ‘good’ person or gain social prestige, is a fairly fundamental aspect of being human.” In the same vein, List says that shame is not only manipulation, but also destructiveness. “Basically, you are trying to control someone else by making them feel less than a person, or less than how you value yourself as a person,” she says.

But the shame strategy becomes especially difficult when people don’t realize they are using it. Swart explains it this way:

Shame is definitely a form of manipulation, but it can happen completely unconsciously. In the context of social distancing and conversations that can occur with family members trying to decide whether to go or stay at home for the holidays, a person who is ashamed may worry about contracting COVID-19 themselves, and therefore it is a kind of unregulated emotion. They can lash out at people, but this is not necessarily intentional or bad – it is a negative connotation associated with manipulation. If you say, “The only way to spend a vacation with such and such is if I make them wear a mask, but I really want to see them,” that is still manipulation, but shame on someone in this matter is not necessary made with bad intentions.

Does it matter who is shaming?

Not every shame has the same weight. This is probably a dynamic you’ve already noticed in your family or group of friends: some people lean more under the influence of some members than others. Let’s say you refuse to wear a mask and your grandmother and little cousin are trying to convince you to change your mind – both are using shame. You may be more receptive to your grandmother’s worries because she’s been through a lot and must be doing something right to stay here.

A person’s response to shame can also depend on how close they are to their shame and the degree of emotional connection between the two. “You’re more likely to feel shame when someone close to you [shames],” explains Swart, “because it’s a big threat to your sense of belonging, and that sense of belonging is the number one problem for the brain in terms of survival. “

How to be persuasive without being ashamed

This is a good time to point out that many people grew up in families and / or communities where shame and guilt were standard communication and persuasion strategies. As we grew up, we saw that shame not only normalized, but became extremely universal – used for everything from explaining why you should finish a meal on your plate, to convincing you that you must act in a certain way or face the eternal. curse (your choice).

This is not an excuse for manipulative behavior, but it is a reminder that in some cases people have to learn new approaches to get their point across, rather than continuing to rely on shame to get their jobs done. Here are some more techniques you can try:

Start with a compliment

Instead of starting the conversation with accusations, List recommends starting the conversation by complimenting the person in a way that emphasizes your connection with them. For example, you might start by saying something like, “Uncle Dave, it’s so great to see your relationship with Aunt Maggie! I love how you always put her needs ahead of yours. How do you do this? I want to learn from you. “

Leaf then says it’s time to make your (preferably subtle and carefully worded) call for the common good: “If someone else wearing a mask stops Aunt Maggie from getting sick, could you consider putting on a mask to ensure the same protection from others? If we all as a community try to protect each other by wearing a mask, we can really reduce the chances of contracting this virus. ”

Change the narrative

Hardy recommends avoiding shame and focusing on the person’s autonomy instead. One way to do this in the current circumstances is to tell people that they actually get more opportunities when they wear a mask and practice physical distancing, “because you are in control of a disaster before it controls you.” Here’s how Hardy transforms the narrative using this approach:

Do you want this disease to control you and your family? If you get sick, now you have no options because you are 100% quarantined and possibly in intensive care. You cannot see your children, you cannot see your pets, you cannot do your favorite things, and perhaps you gave your life to this virus. Wear a mask and you are in control of COVID, not letting it control you.

Leverage the mindset of the community

One of the most frustrating and frustrating responses to the pandemic is when people realize that for public health interventions to work (and by extension, save lives), it means they have to make (usually small) sacrifices themselves, but they do not care enough to compel them, and / or genuinely believe that their comfort is more valuable than the lives of others. In situations like this, the pursuit of the common good is likely to go nowhere.

But if you’re talking to someone you think can respond to that thinking, Leaf suggests using it. “A much better way to convince people is to appeal to the need that we humans have a deep, meaningful connection and community,” she explains. ” Many studies show that when we develop a community mindset, we will come together to do what is best for the community, not just what is best for me, because we are deeply connected to those around us.” Bruis-Slade describes this as “the awakening of moral excellence, not moral evil, as a reason for change.”

Do it about them

If a community outlook approach is not appropriate, Swart recommends shifting your focus – and your concerns – to the person you are talking to. For example, if you’re trying to convince someone to stay home for the holidays, Swart says you might say something like, “I want you to be protected from COVID. You know, we are very careful and really do not want to infect anyone. So let’s kind of come to an agreement on how we can do this and make sure everyone is safe and happy. “


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