Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Destructive Power of Shame

Shame is a negative self-conscious emotion that encompasses the feeling that something is terribly wrong with the self as a human being. Feelings of shame are a prominent factor in suicidal thoughts, behaviors, and self-harm (Hastings et al., 2002; Gilbert et al., 2010).  Lately I've encountered several articles saying that shame really isn't that bad for you, after all. The first theme of these commentaries is the spectacle of public shaming, and the second theme concerns private shame as a means of social control.

The Futility of Public Shaming

One news article bemoaned the end of shame in American politics. Sex scandals, drug use, and other egregious mistakes just don't have the same permanently negative consequences they used to. If you're a powerful male politician, that is.

Where’s the shame? Scandals may no longer end political careers 

WASHINGTON — Sex. Drugs. Cheating on a spouse.

Those words used to add up to shame. Put them in the same sentence as a politician’s name, and they ended careers.

Not anymore. The latest batch of unlikely back-from-the-swamp hopefuls are Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer. Weiner resigned his New York City congressional seat two years ago after revelations that he’d tweeted a sexually suggestive picture of himself to a woman who was following him on Twitter. Spitzer left the state’s governorship in 2008 after reports surfaced that federal investigators had tagged him as “Client 9,” soliciting high-end prostitutes.

Read more here:

Here's the list of prominent male politicians from the article:

The lesson from all this: Wind up on the ever-increasing roll of tainted celebrities and re-emerge as the friendly, professional politician that vaulted you into office in the first place, and you’ll probably be OK.

"You'll probably be OK"... if you're a man. Has a female politician ever emerged intact from a federal sex scandal? Or has even been involved in such a scandal? If so, the double standard of slut shaming would likely put an end to her career. One of the few women on the state and local list is:
  • Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch (R)... The married mother of one resigned from her leadership position and announced that she would not be seeking reelection shortly before four fellow Republicans indicated that she had been engaged in an "inappropriate" relationship with a male staffer. (2011).

Shaming on the Internet

How about for obnoxious offenders in the general public? Does the public shaming of those who spew idiotic sexist, racist, and homophobic comments on social media do any good?

The Public Shaming Tumblr aims to draw attention to bad actors on Twitter. Matt Binder says:
I started retweeting people complaining about welfare, food stamps, etc. and then following it up with a previous tweet of theirs that makes them look hypocritical/dumb/etc.

I discovered that as I would retweet these, my followers would start @replying these people and let them know they were idiots. They would then delete their offending tweet.

Well, I couldn’t let that happen. So, I screenshot away.

One continuous stream of vile sexist hatred was directed at Women's Wimbledon champion, Marion Bartoli. Why? Because she's not a blond model. Even BBC presenter John Inverdale took part in the insults, saying she "never going to be a looker"... to which Bartoli responded:
"It doesn't matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I'm sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes."

This is the bottom line. She won Wimbledon, and her detractors will never accomplish anything that monumental. Does shaming the immature little boys for their pathetic cries for attention help anyone?

Some of those dudes deleted their accounts (to perhaps reappear another day), but others just go on their merry way with earth-shattering pronouncements like, "I have to untangle my earphones at least 3 times a day" and "Playstation is better than Xbox."

Public shaming doesn't seem to cause any lasting change. Does it?
Shaming: it’s a bit crap for everyone

It’s no surprise to anyone that Twitter and Facebook are filled with vile, racist, homophobic, bigoted awfulness. Because humanity is filled with vile, racist, homophobic bigots.
. . .

The consequence of these shaming sites, is that us “enlightened” folk then pile in on the bigots and abuse them and tell them how awful they are. And I’m willing to bet that the number of individuals who have rescinded what is probably years’ of built up bigotry is the same number of terrorist attacks that the Wellington airport security screeners have stopped: Zero.
. . .

That’s not to say we should let people get away with awfulness, but when we publicly name and shame and by proxy invite the internet to start tormenting these people, we are becoming them. No better than they are because we now have a figure to poke a stick at.

The shame sweepstakes become more costly and damaging once we enter the world of mental illness, addiction, and difference. Yet some still argue in favor of shaming.

Has there been a resurgence of shame as a means of social control?

1. Shame is good for you!  Shame is biological, so it's inevitable that those who are different or disabled will feel it. That was the premise of an article in the Atlantic, which in my opinion was complete and utter bullshit.

Challenging the Anti-Shame Zeitgeist

In response to a spate of teen suicides last year, a number of celebrities (Anne Hathaway, Justin Timberlake, Ellen DeGeneres, among others) used their visibility to castigate people who bully others. When public figures denounce bullying, they draw attention to the power of shame: A victim's experience at the hands of a bully can be so excruciating that life becomes unendurable.
. . .

Everywhere we look, pride is on the march, and shame is on the run.
. . .

If shame is such a bad thing, why did evolution see fit to program it into our genes? Evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists believe that guilt and shame evolved to promote stable social relationships. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Evolution, "conformity to cultural values, beliefs, and practices makes behavior predictable and allows for the advent of complex coordination and cooperation." While the anti-shame zeitgeist views conformity to norms as oppressive, support for a great many of our social norms and the shame that enforces them is virtually unanimous.

For example, many would agree that fathers who walk out on their families, neglect their offspring, and fail to make child support payments should feel ashamed. Shame is the appropriate emotion for those men to feel: if powerful enough, the experience of shame might help them to fulfill their obligations as fathers and members of society.

Is there any scientific evidence that shaming deadbeat dads causes them to pay child support?

But it gets worse, with justifications for the biological and social inevitability of shame. Disabled children, little people, LGBT folks - be ashamed of yourselves! and stay in the closet.

While the efforts of all the parents in Solomon's book [Far From the Tree] to promote healthy self-esteem in their children are worthy and admirable, here is the unfortunate reality: those afflicted with a major disability will inevitably experience a sense of shame for the ways in which they are different, regardless of whether they have been shunned or actively shamed by their peers. Shame spontaneously arises from the perception of unfavorable difference, whether or not society inflicts it upon the person. 

Shame springs from the knowledge that your development didn't unfold as might have been expected under normal conditions.

So here it is, according to : if you're different in any way, you should feel ashamed for who you are. For simply existing in a less than perfect state. Because you are "pre-programmed" to feel that way.

Here's what I think: shame is a toxic social construction. It's used by religions to control the sexual behavior of their congregations. It's used by bullies to promote their social standing over the weak. It's used by parents to ostensibly make their children into high achievers, but they end up depressed, anxious, eating disordered. It's used by the media to make women (and men) so ashamed of their bodies that they go out and buy products to lose weight, improve their looks, enhance their private parts. Shame seems to hold a central role in the perception of an adverse self-image in young women with eating disorders (Franzoni et al., 2013).

2. Shame is good for you!  Addiction is a choice, so those who have a substance use disorder should be shamed into getting clean and sober. That was the territory covered in a 2007 Slate article by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld, authors of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. An old blog post by Dirk Hanson at Addiction Inbox pointed me to their essay, which took exception to the notion that addiction is a brain disease:

Medical Misnomer
Addiction isn't a brain disease, Congress.

A full-scale campaign is under way to change the public perception of drug addiction, from a moral failing to a brain disease. Last spring, HBO aired an ambitious series that touted addiction as a "chronic and relapsing brain disease." In early July, a Time magazine cover story suggested that addiction is the doing of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which courses through the brain's reward circuits. And now Congress is weighing in.

They're opposed to the NIDA definition of drug addiction:
Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviors.

Satel and Lilienfeld continue:
Characterizing addiction as a brain disease misappropriates language more properly used to describe conditions such as multiple sclerosis or schizophrenia—afflictions that are neither brought on by sufferers themselves nor modifiable by their desire to be well. Also, the brain disease rhetoric is fatalistic, implying that users can never fully free themselves of their drug or alcohol problems. Finally, and most important, it threatens to obscure the vast role personal agency plays in perpetuating the cycle of use and relapse to drugs and alcohol. 

And now we get to their justification for shaming:
Finally, dare we ask: Why is stigma bad? It is surely unfortunate if it keeps people from getting help (although we believe the real issue is not embarrassment but fear of a breach of confidentiality). The push to destigmatize overlooks the healthy role that shame can play, by motivating many otherwise reluctant people to seek treatment in the first place and jolting others into quitting before they spiral down too far.

Really??? There is absolutely no evidence that shame motivates an addicted person to seek help. Quite the contrary, shame prevents people from getting the treatment they need (Wiechelt, 2007). Note that shame is different from guilt - with shame you're a bad person, and with guilt you did a bad thing. Why would shaming someone already filled with shame about their own undesirable behaviors be a motivating force for change?

Here's a straight answer from @maiasz
Being Ashamed of Drinking Prompts Relapse, Not Recovery

Embarrassment over an excessive-drinking session doesn’t necessarily lead to more sobriety.

In a study of alcoholics and relapse rates, researchers found that the more shame-ridden a drinker looked when talking about drinking — interpreted through body language like hunched shoulders — the more likely he or she was to relapse and the more drinks he or she downed during that relapse.
. . .

The results 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.

For example, a review of the research on the use of humiliating, confrontational tactics, which attempt to induce shame, found that none of the studies done in four decades supported this approach. In one study included in the analysis, the more the counselor confronted the client with past mistakes or other shaming information about his problem, the more the client drank.

So let's not challenge the anti-shame zeitgeist or encourage public shaming of those with addictions, mental illnesses, disabilities, or differences of any sort.


Franzoni E, Gualandi S, Caretti V, Schimmenti A, Di Pietro E, Pellegrini G, Craparo G, Franchi A, Verrotti A, Pellicciari A. (2013). The relationship between alexithymia, shame, trauma, and body image disorders: investigation over a large clinical sample. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 9:185-93.

Gilbert P, McEwan K, Irons C, Bhundia R, Christie R, Broomhead C, & Rockliff H (2010). Self-harm in a mixed clinical population: the roles of self-criticism, shame, and social rank. The British journal of clinical psychology / the British Psychological Society, 49 (Pt 4), 563-76 PMID: 20109278

Hastings ME, Northman LM, Tangney JP (2002). Shame, Guilt, and Suicide. Suicide Science, 67-79 DOI: 10.1007/0-306-47233-3_6

Wiechelt SA (2007). The specter of shame in substance misuse. Substance use & misuse, 42 (2-3), 399-409 PMID: 17558937

Don't wait for pain
To find out you exist
Don't look for shame
Your better off without it
Life is unkind


For other critiques of the "addiction is a brain disease" view, see Why Addiction is NOT a Brain Disease by Marc Lewis and Why the New Definition of Addiction, as ‘Brain Disease,’ Falls Short by Maia Szalavitz.1

But note that Lewis holds more nuanced views than his categorical statement indicates (e.g., "it's accurate in some ways"),2 and Szalavitz has reported on predispositions towards addiction that are based on pre-existing differences in brain structure.

Arguing that addiction is either completely a matter of choice or entirely caused by a faulty brain misses the complexity of a person with a brain in a social environment.


1 Szalavitz also says:
Like depression, addiction is a real medical disorder that affects the brain. But if we want to reduce the stigma associated with it, emphasizing recovery and resilience is probably more useful than focusing on definitions of brain disease.

2 The entire paragraph from Lewis is worth quoting:
What’s wrong with this definition?

It’s accurate in some ways. It accounts for the neurobiology of addiction better than the “choice” model and other contenders. It explains the helplessness addicts feel: they are in the grip of a disease, and so they can’t get better by themselves. It also helps alleviate guilt, shame, and blame, and it gets people on track to seek treatment. Moreover, addiction is indeed like a disease, and a good metaphor and a good model may not be so different.

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At July 13, 2013 7:51 PM, Blogger Psycritic said...

Agree that the shame you describe is pretty useless, but what your post doesn't cover is the cultural aspects of shame, especially in Asian cultures. There, shame is less about trying to publicly disgrace individuals and more about individuals disgracing their family name, so it's the people closest to a person who makes them feel the shame. That's not to say that it's good or bad, but I believe in those cultures it actually does work to "reinforce societal expectations and proper behavior."

You can read more about the differences between shame and guilt in collectivist cultures here.

At July 13, 2013 8:07 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Psycritic - Thanks for pointing that out. I should have issued a disclaimer that I was taking a very Anglo-American-centric approach, with examples taken from shameless American politicians, an American psychotherapist who wrote the Atlantic article, and the addiction literature applied to North American culture.

I understand the importance of acknowledging cultural differences in the function of shame and "saving face." I have observed first-hand the role that shame can play in Chinese-American families.

At July 14, 2013 1:00 PM, Anonymous Steve Lane said...

Hiya, I would say that shame is a big part of how people become addicted in the first place and it self perpetuates as the addiction deepens. Shame can be devastating but I also think there are healthy forms of shame that remind us that we are 'human' when we make a mistake. As Psycritic says, there are cultural variations to how shame is used positively (in all cultures including Anglo American), although it can still be abused in all cultures in the name of 'societal expectations and proper behaviour' when actually it's just to exert control and power. I like how you're adding to the debate about shame as it underpins so much of what goes on in society but (by its nature) is usually not talked about.

At July 14, 2013 3:14 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Steve Lane - Thanks. One of the best people to comment on the toxic effects of shame is Brené Brown. She makes a careful semantic distinction between shame and guilt in this TED talk. [link is set to 14:01 in the talk]

She also says there's no such thing as 'good shame' in this post against public shaming:

"Reeves basically makes the good shame/bad shame argument, explaining that shame should be used in some ways but not others.

I don’t see any evidence of “good shame.” Not in my research and not in the research being done by other affect researchers.

I define shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Along with many other shame researchers, I’ve come to the conclusion that shame is much more likely to be the source of dangerous, destructive, and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.
. . .

Making the distinction between good and bad shame, and promoting so-called good shame is like saying there’s “good starvation” and “bad starvation” and that we need to address the obesity epidemic with “good starvation.” Just like there’s no such thing as “good starvation,” there’s no such thing as “good shame.”

The “good shame” that Reeves describes is actually a combination of guilt and empathy. And, interestingly, there is actually significant research on the important roles both guilt and empathy play in pro-social, positive behavior.

Is this just a case of semantics? No. We don’t refer to balanced, healthy eating as “good starvation” because it’s confusing, inaccurate, and misleading. It also obscures and confuses what we really need to do to move toward positive social outcomes.

The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.” Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors."

The quoted post and her talk also make the point that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, suicide, and eating disorders -- while guilt is inversely correlated with those things.

So perhaps the adaptive aspect you're talking about is more like Brown's combination of guilt and empathy.

At July 16, 2013 2:14 AM, Blogger Bernard Carroll said...

Thanks for this discussion of the redeeming value of shame and guilt. Maybe we should look beyond the examples on which you focused – addiction and other ‘differences.’ There is a further dimension in which shame is anything but mere a social construction. It’s the objective moral dimension.

When Hermann Goering killed himself in prison by cyanide capsule after the Nuremberg trials on the day before his scheduled execution, was he acting out of shame or guilt? Or cowardice? Whatever. He recognized that his deeds had made him a pariah and that there were no options for rehabilitation. In other words, he rightly felt shunned by society for his egregious behavior. Who cares how he internalized that?

In our field we see bad actors subjected to public shame if not always to internalized guilt. Some, like Charles Nemeroff, shamelessly attempt rehabilitation, like your examples of Anthony Wiener and Elliot Spitzer. Others, like Jack Gorman, go the guilt route. Jack Gorman was a high profile KOL in psychiatry, a crony of Charles Nemeroff, chief of service at Harvard’s McLean Hospital, outed for unprofessional behavior with a female patient. He experienced an emergency hospitalization and he lost his medical license.

At the same time, public shaming and shunning cannot be effective without spine from societal institutions. When that spine is lacking, as when NIMH Director Thomas Insel recommended Charles Nemeroff for the chair in psychiatry at U Miami after Nemeroff was outed by Senator Charles Grassley and fired from the departmental leadership chair at Emory University over serious conflict of interest issues, or when the London based Institute of Psychiatry-Maudsley Hospital ignored Nemeroff’s ethics compromises last month when choosing him for a special lectureship, then the social function of shaming is undermined. NIMH Director Thomas Insel should have known better; the grown-ups at the IoP-Maudsley should have known better.

A further domain in which shaming can operate to the general good is the area of retractions. Here also, however, there is room for gaming the system… as when PNAS declares an “erratum” for an egregiously misleading presentation of data or when Neuropsychopharmacology does the same, passing it off as an error that seemingly happened by Immaculate Conception.

At July 16, 2013 4:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good topic. If you grew up in a Catholic environment, everything that has to do with sex is associated with shame and so it has to stay secret.

At March 04, 2021 8:19 PM, Blogger Minajk said...

How can we truly navigate Guilt and Shame? We face it head on! We are transparent and open with our past mistakes and poor choices. We take ownership of them and move on! The best way to repay our family and friends whom we have hurt in the past, is to live a purposeful, honest and substance free life.


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