On the Good in Shame: An Excerpt from Is Shame Necessary

Photo: © Courtesy of the Author

Editor's Note:

In her new book, Is Shame Necessary, Jennifer Jacquet, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies, conducts an exploration of the notion of shame and what it means in today’s society. She presents to us her case for nonviolent public shaming as a means of resistance that can challenge and change corporations and government. In this excerpt from her book, Jacquet delves into shame as a dynamic part of society.

Shame is calibrated to the norm, which is why it is so dynamic and differs so much across cultures. In Central Brazil, Bakairi Indians find eating in public incredibly shameful, while they find no shame in their nakedness. You might be ashamed when you hear your party did not tip the waiter at a nice restaurant in the U.S. but you would not feel the same way in France, where tipping is not customary. In many cases, shame and shaming have gotten a bad rap when, in fact, the shame might not be as problematic as the norm to which that shaming is calibrated. When doctors feel too ashamed to admit or to share their mistakes, the real culprit is not shame but the norm that dictates that doctors cannot and do not make errors (driven largely, I imagine, by threats of litigation).

Part of shame’s potency is due to our negativity bias – the asymmetry in how our brains process negative versus positive information. The negative stuff sticks better. People sometimes believe negative gossip even if it’s it clearly inaccurate. Negative opinions are also more contagious than positive ones, and losing something – including, perhaps, one’s reputation – feels particularly bad – worse than gaining that same something feels good. For these reasons, parents repeat proverbs like, ‘one falsehood spoils a thousand truths’ or Ben Franklin’s “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

Shame is more conspicuous in collectivist cultures in part because the norms are more commonly shared and widely enforced. In societies that value individualism and outliers, shame might be less apparent. But shame still exists everywhere. Many people believe violent gang members are shameless, and certain gang members might be. But gangs, like any group, have their own brand of shame calibrated to their own set of norms – often related to loyalty and snitching – and their own forms of punishment. Even among thieves, there is honor and there is shame, but they are just provoked by a different set of standards.