Is Shame Necessary?

Dense but thought-provoking reading on shame, and why it doesn’t work as well it might in controlling behavior.

1. Today’s world is rife with ephemeral, or “one-off,” interactions. When you know you’re unlikely to run into the same situation again, there is less incentive to change your behavior. Research shows, however, that if people know they will interact again, cooperation improves. Shame works better if the potential for future interaction is high. In a world of one-off interactions, we can try to compensate for anonymity with an image score, such as hygiene grade cards or eBay’s seller ratings, which sends a signal to the group about an individual’s or institution’s degree of cooperation.

2. Today’s world allows for amorphous identities. Recall the reef fish that observe Bluestreak Cleaner wrasses in the Red Sea. The wrasses seem to know they are being watched, and certain wrasses build their reputation on the small reef fish, allowing the big reef fish to observe their cooperative behavior with the small fry. Then, when the big fish comes in for its own cleaning, these wrasses eat some of the big reef fish’s flesh along with its parasites, fattening themselves on their defection. To add to the confusion on the reef, False Cleanerfish (Aspidontus taeniatus) make their living by looking very similar to the Bluestreak Cleaner wrasses. They are able to approach reef fish under the guise of cooperation and then bite off pieces of fish flesh and swim away….

3. Shaming’s biggest drawback is its insufficiency. Some people have no shame. In the research my colleagues and I have conducted on first-year students involving games that require cooperation, we have found that shame does not always encourage cooperation from players who are least cooperative. This suggests that a certain fraction of a given population will always behave shamelessly, like the False Cleanerfish, if the payoff is high enough. The banks may have gone bankrupt, but the bankers got their bonuses. There was even speculation that publishing individual bankers’ bonuses would lead to banker jealousy, not shame.

via Is Shame Necessary? | Conversation | Edge.


  1. Brent Buckner says:

    re: point 3, perhaps that's one reason that shaming and shunning were associated; cooperators conspired to stop dealing with non-cooperators.


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