Nine months and more than 290,000 deaths into the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States is facing a crisis within a crisis. In addition to contending with the spread of a highly contagious virus — and the overcrowded hospitals and overworked medical staff that come with it — we also have to deal with living alongside people still don’t think the pandemic is real and/or who refuse to participate in public health strategies, like wearing face masks.
We now have promising vaccines on our side, but it will be several months before the general public will have the opportunity to get immunised (and even them, some people will likely refuse to do so). And between now and then, we have to make it through the holidays and cold and flu season.
With the situation getting more dire by the day, it’s hard to know what to do next. Public health officials, scientists, and medical professionals have been pleading with us for months to follow physical distancing and masking guidelines. And yet, here we are, hitting record numbers of COVID deaths every day.
While most of us aren’t tasked with convincing an entire population of the reality of the pandemic, we may find ourselves in situations where we’re trying to reason with friends or family members in an attempt to get them to take the most basic precautions — like staying home for the holidays this year.
If science and data aren’t working, we may be tempted to turn to another strategy: Shame. But is shaming an effective way to get another person to change their behaviour? We see it on social media all the time, and may rely on it ourselves, but does it actually work — and if so, how effective is it in the long run? Lifehacker spoke with several experts to find out.
How people respond to being shamed
The idea of using shame as a way to prompt someone to improve their behaviour has been around since ancient times, most notably in the form of punishments involving public humiliation. Public shaming isn’t likely going to be an option for you if you want to convince your dad to wear a mask, but the historical perspective does help illustrate how long we’ve been attempting to harness negative emotions as a way to modify the behaviour of others. And interpersonal shaming — between family members and friend groups — operates via similar principals. But will it work when it comes to reinforcing adherence to public health measures?
The question of whether or not shame is “effective” at all is itself complicated: while it may “work,” in the sense that it elicits a response, determining if it’s an “effective” strategy for producing meaningful changes in health behaviour — and ideally, not causing more harm than good — is another one completely.
According to Dr. Alexandra Brewis-Slade, a biocultural anthropologist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University and the author of the book Lazy, Crazy, and Disgusting: Stigma and the Undoing of Global Health, this is an important distinction. “Shame is a very powerfully felt emotion and can motivate people to conform when the shame is related to violating some social expectation,” she tells Lifehacker. “The real problem is when shame translates into stigma.”
What being shamed does to our brains
To get a better idea of why people respond to shame, Dr. Tara Swart — a neuroscientist, psychiatrist, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan and the author of The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, The Science of the Brain — says it’s important to consider the role our emotions play in decision-making. According to Swart, there are eight basic human emotions, each of which correlates to various levels of certain neurotransmitters. Within this spectrum, there are five survival emotions: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and shame.
“These are the emotions that people never want to feel and experience because they activate the stress hormone, cortisol,” Swart tells Lifehacker. “So it’s actually bad for your body, and you might get headaches, muscle pains, insomnia, or indigestion as a result.”
Understandably, as humans, we’ll go to great lengths to avoid feeling like that — which is why Swart says that shame can be an easy tactic to motivate people. But that doesn’t mean we should use it. Not only is shame the low-hanging fruit of persuasion techniques, using it is also a negative approach to behaviour change, she explains.
Dr. Caroline Leaf, a neuroscientist and mental health expert, and author of the forthcoming book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, agrees. “Shame is a very negative emotion that challenges a person’s identity and tends either to make people defensive or aggressive, or make them withdraw to protect themselves,” she says. “Shame essentially tells someone they are bad, as opposed to making them feel that they may be doing something that will have negative consequences. Shame can lead to persistent, hovering anxiety, and may even block someone’s ability to reason through things logically.”
Since March, people throughout the world have been living within at least two separate spheres of reality. One sphere is inhabited by those who have changed their daily habits in light of the global crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, their every action now dictated by a desire to keep themselves...Read more
Why shame can do more harm than good
When it comes to trying to convince people close to us to take the pandemic seriously, it’s probably safe to assume that our attempts at persuasion are coming from a good place. We want our friends and family to stay safe and healthy, and for all of us to do our part to promote public health measures. And while people may have a strong reaction to being shamed — even possibly improving their behaviour in the short-term — as a communication strategy it can also be damaging.
This is because, as Brewis-Slade explains, shame can quickly turn into stigma: “That is, it isn’t just a transitory feeling, but becomes part of the person’s social identity.” She uses the example of the distinction between being “someone who smokes” and “a smoker” — the latter typically coming with the connotation that the person is unhealthy, and possibly disgusting. “Stigmatised identities push people down and out of society,” Brewis-Slade says. “The more marginalised or socially vulnerable a person is, the worse this process will be, and the further down and out they will be pushed.”
After spending years working in disaster preparedness and management in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, Patrick Hardy — a Certified Emergency Manager and president of Disaster Hawk, a disaster preparation and response app — has seen shame used countless times in attempts to get people to change their behaviour during emergency situations.
But it doesn’t work, Hardy says. Consider humans’ track record of cognitive dissonance — like those who continue to smoke despite knowing about the negative health repercussions — as evidence. “Another example is during storms, when people drive their cars through dangerous flood waters,” he tells Lifehacker. “They know it isn’t safe, but they figure [something bad] won’t happen to them, and that they seemingly know floods better than anyone, so they continue to do this even in the face of very grim statistics.”
Beyond being ineffective, Hardy says that using shame in this way could actually reinforce the negative behaviour you’re attempting to convince someone to change, causing them to actively seek out ways to avoid the unpleasant feelings that come with the emotion.
In situations like these, Hardy says that people being shamed typically turn to one of two strategies: (1) finding information that supports their own viewpoint (for instance, that mask wearing isn’t as effective as people say, or labelling dissonant information “fake news”), or (2) downplaying the importance of their own behaviour (like stating that they don’t need to wear masks because they are skipping the gym and washing their hands regularly). Either way, that conversation is not going to be productive for anyone.
Is shame a form of manipulation?
Even if we have the best of intentions, using shame to get someone to act differently can be considered a form of manipulation. “Almost all suggested behaviour change is a manipulation,” Brewis-Slade explains. “It’s a soft coercion based in our desire to align to social ideals or expected norms and be considered a ‘good’ person or to gain social prestige — a pretty fundamental aspect of being human.” Along the same lines, Leaf says that shaming is not only manipulative — it’s also destructive. “You are essentially trying to control someone else by making them feel less than human, or less than how you view your own worth as a human being,” she says.
But where the shame strategy gets especially tricky is when people don’t realise that they’re using it. Here’s how Swart explains it:
Shaming definitely is a type of manipulation, but it could be done quite unconsciously. In the context of social distancing and conversations that may happen with family members trying to decide whether to travel or stay home for the holidays, the person shaming could be anxious about catching COVID-19 themselves, and so it’s sort of like an unregulated emotion. They may be lashing out, but it’s not necessarily intentional or a bad thing — which is the negative connotation surrounding manipulation. If you say “The only way I’m going to get to spend the holidays with so-and-so is if I shame them into wearing a mask, but I really want to see them,” it’s still manipulation, but shaming someone in that case isn’t necessarily done with bad intentions.
Does it matter who is doing the shaming?
Not all shaming carries equal weight. This is probably a dynamic you’ve already noticed within your own family or friend group: some people are swayed by certain members more than others. Let’s say you’re the one who refuses to wear a mask, and both your grandmother and younger cousin try to convince you to change your mind — both using shame. Perhaps you’ll be more receptive to your grandmother’s concern because she’s been through a lot and must be doing something right to still be here.
A person’s reaction to shame may also depend on how close they are to their shamer, and the extent of the emotional bond between them. “You are more likely to feel shame when someone closer to you does [the shaming],” Swart explains, “because it’s a bigger threat to your sense of belonging, and this sense of belonging is the number one concern for the brain in terms of survival.”
How to be convincing without using shame
This is a good time to point out that a lot of people were raised in households and/or communities where shame and guilt were the default communication and persuasion strategies. Growing up, we saw shame not only being normalised, but also appearing to be extremely versatile — used for everything from explaining why you have to finish the food on your plate, to convincing you that you must act a certain way or face eternal damnation (your choice).
That’s not an excuse for manipulative behaviour, but it is a reminder that in some cases, people have to learn new approaches to getting their point across, rather than continuing to rely on shame to get the job done. Here are some other techniques you may want to try:
Start with a compliment
Instead of beginning a conversation with an accusation, Leaf recommends opening by complimenting that person in a way that underscores your connection to them. For example, you could start off 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 before yours. How do you do this? I want to learn from you.”
From there, Leaf says it’s time to make your (preferably subtle and carefully-worded) appeal for the greater good: “If someone else wearing a mask stopped Aunt Maggie from getting sick, could you consider wearing a mask to afford the same protection to others? If all of us as a community try to protect each other, by wearing a mask, we can actually reduce the chance of catching this virus.”
Change the narrative
Hardy recommends eschewing shame, and focusing on a person’s autonomy instead. One way to do this in the current circumstances is to tell people that they are actually more empowered when they wear a mask and practice physical distancing, “because you are controlling the disaster before it controls you.” Here’s how Hardy changes the narrative when 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 have to 100% quarantine and may be in an ICU. You can’t see your kids, you can’t see your pets, can’t do your favourite things and you may have surrendered your life to this virus. Wear the mask, and you are in control of COVID, not have it control you.
Employ a community mindset
One of the most disappointing and frustrating responses to the pandemic has been when people understand that in order for public health measures to work (and as a result, save lives), it means that they have to make (usually small) sacrifices themselves — but they don’t care enough to make them, and/or truly believe that their comfort is more valuable than other people’s lives. In situations like these, making a case for the greater good probably isn’t going to get you anywhere.
But if you’re having a conversation with a person who you think might be responsive to this line of thinking, Leaf suggests using it. “A far better way to convince people is to appeal to the need we have as humans for deep, meaningful connection and community,” she explains. “Much research shows that when we develop a community mindset, we will pull together to do what’s best for the community — not just what’s best for me — because we are deeply connected to those around us.” Brewis-Slade describes this as “evoking moral goodness rather than moral badness as a reason to change.”
Make it about them
If the community mindset approach is a no-go, Swart recommends shifting the focus — and your concern — to the person you’re having the conversation with. For example, if you’re attempting to persuade someone to stay at home during the holidays, Swart says you could say something along the lines of: “I want you to be protected from COVID. You know, we’re being super careful and we’d hate to infect anybody else. So let’s kind of reach an agreement about how we can do this and keep everybody safe and happy.”