Jennifer Jacquet: "Shaming At Scale"

Jennifer Jacquet: "Shaming At Scale"

HeadCon '14
Jennifer Jacquet [11.18.14]

Shaming, in this case, was a fairly low-cost form of punishment that had high reputational impact on the U.S. government, and led to a change in behavior. It worked at scale—one group of people using it against another group of people at the group level. This is the kind of scale that interests me. And the other thing that it points to, which is interesting, is the question of when shaming works. In part, it's when there's an absence of any other option. Shaming is a little bit like antibiotics. We can overuse it and actually dilute its effectiveness, because it's linked to attention, and attention is finite. With punishment, in general, using it sparingly is best. But in the international arena, and in cases in which there is no other option, there is no formalized institution, or no formal legislation, shaming might be the only tool that we have, and that's why it interests me. 


JENNIFER JACQUET is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons; Author, Is Shame Necessary? Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page


My name is Jennifer Jacquet. I'm an assistant professor in environmental studies at NYU and I'm interested in large-scale cooperation dilemmas. A lot of those are environmental in nature. I wonder about what it's going to take to leave 1,700 billion barrels of oil in the ground, or half the fish in the ocean, or to remove nitrous oxide from the atmosphere so that we don't deplete the ozone.

The interesting thing about conservation, and science in general, is that it's moving into the social sciences and into questions about human nature. You would say, especially someone like Josh Knobe might say, well, that's not that interesting because a lot of fields, including philosophy, are doing more empirical work. Gender studies are also moving more into the social domain and empirical data collection. The same pertains to African-American studies. But the interesting thing here is that with conservation science it was epistemologically and institutionally a discipline in the natural sciences, rather than the humanities.

I find this move interesting and also challenging for a lot of hardcore biologists and ecologists who have traditionally dominated the field to recognize that the most important interrelationship is not between the plants and animals, or the animals in the ecosystem, but between humans and the environment. I view there being a big wave of environmental social science coming on board, and I'm part of that wave.

My supervisor for my PhD was a fisheries biologist. He did important work early on in basic science on oxygen and growth level, population ecology, and then only later in his career, realizing the problems out there in the ocean, turned more toward social questions, about subsidies, and the affects of marine reserves, and had this more human-dominated view. That's one exciting wave in social science, at least in the realm of conservation.

One of the first disciplines to get on board with this has been psychology, so we now have conservation psychology and environmental psychology. They've done important work. The American Psychological Association released a report in 2009 about the effects of climate change on psychology and vice-versa. But I don't think psychology is going to be the only social science we need in this pursuit, because of the focus on the individual, and I'll get to that in a moment.

My reason for turning to social science from the natural sciences is because I became interested in guilt as a motivation for changing one’s behavior, for changing one’s decision-making, and I saw guilt being prevalent in environmental issues, such as over-fishing, climate change. That interest in guilt led to shame, to the point where people started describing me as somebody who worked on fish and shame, which was just a little bit weird, but I hope to tie that all together for you today.

Backing up to some of that more basic or even humanities type research on guilt, it's argued that guilt is a relatively new phenomenon, in general. It's primarily a Western phenomenon, linked to the rise of individualism as a characteristic, and more prevalent in the West than the East. In some Eastern cultures they don't even have a word for guilt, and there are others who argue and philosophers who argue that it's also linked to the rise of abstract thinking.

My own view on guilt is that it's highly dependent on how much time you get to spend alone. I think that when you have zero chance of spending any time alone in your society, you're very unlikely to have strong feelings of guilt every day, in part because I view guilt as defined—and there are lots of arguments, and you all know these better than I do, definitions about what guilt or shame really mean—but guilt is internalized, and the only person you're answering to is your own self. I view guilt as the cheapest form of punishment there is. It's self-punishment, and you prevent the group from having to punish you by either cutting yourself off from doing the act, to begin with, or paying some sort of penance afterward.

Shakespeare used the word "guilt" only 33 times. He used the word "shame" 344 times. So when we start thinking that it's just a Western thing, we should also note that it's even more modern than just being a Western phenomenon. My own particular interest is in environmental guilt, which I see this rising a lot, basically beginning in the 1980s, and I tie this to a switch from a system that was focused on changing a supply chain and production of chemicals or bad products, to more a demand-focused side strategy.

With that demand focus strategy, the focus on the individual, guilt was an easy low-hanging way of getting people to engage with the issues. Of course, there's a big threshold problem there. Because it's linked to a switch from the focus on supply to the focus on demand, it means that its power is very limited.

If you ask does this behavior scale, I would argue, no it doesn't scale. Does the U.S. feel guilty for doing something? Does BP feel guilty for the Gulf Oil spill? By the very definition of what guilt is—an internal regulation of one's own conscience—it implies, at least to me, that it does not scale to the group level; although, you have these trends, like survivor guilt or collective guilt, that call this into question.

I am interested in social problems, so maybe we should focus on the types of social emotions that might scale, and not just social emotions, but social tools, and that's why I got interested in shame as a tool, which is separate from shame as an emotion. We could all disagree here about what shame is as an emotion. A lot of people agree that it requires some sort of audience, but some don't. Some people argue it's a sense of your whole self, or as guilt is just based on the transgression itself. But I want to focus on shame as a tool, as a punishment, and situate it within a larger body of punishment.

I would like to distinguish shame, starting off, from transparency. A lot of people confuse them in the popular media, thinking that they're the same thing. Transparency exposes everyone in a population, regardless of their behavior, whereas shame exposes only a minority of players, and this is an important distinction. Both shame and transparency are obviously only interesting if the distribution is not uniform. So we have to have some variability in there; otherwise, we're really not interested in the behavior. I want to argue, too, and one of the points I make in some recent work, is that shame is more effective the larger those gaps are, not just between existing behaviors, but between what we think should happen and what is actually happening.

Shame and transparency are different. Shame, in fact, even though we all have a knee jerk reaction to thinking it's a terrible tool, can be more protective than transparency. We have these groups like the Sunlight Foundation that say we want to expose all politicians' behavior, and actually, I argue that maybe only exposing the worst of the players' behavior can be more beneficial than exposing everyone.

The way that I first started working on shame was to look at public goods games, these cooperative dilemmas that have already been talked about, where you can either donate money or not, and then that money is doubled or tripled and redistributed evenly to all players, so there's that tension between the individual and the group. What's interesting about punishment in these games is that the way it's been operationalized is entirely monetarily, so you play a little bit of money, and you extract a bigger amount of money from the person you're punishing. This is a very one-dimensional way of looking at punishment.

We should get a little more creative about the way that we operationalize punishment in these games. Of course, it's very hard. Maybe we could shock people. We can't put them in prison. We can't kill them. That wouldn’t get past an ethics review. But these are the forms. We have these kinds of deprivations: we can either remove life, liberty, physical safety, resources, or reputation.

In our experiment we told players at the start of the game that the two players that donated least out of six would be exposed at the end of the game. That was the only threat of punishment they received, this burden of social exposure, what we would call shame, again, as a tool, rather than an emotion. We didn't even measure how they felt. We didn't care how they felt, frankly. We were caring about the behavior that manifested, and, again, that's because I don't come from a psychology background. I'm interested in a more economic side of things, especially with the scaling effects.

What's interesting is that we have these forms of punishment monetarily, and no one would ever question those ethically. But after our experiments came out, I was blindsided by the fact that some people didn't agree with the experiments from an ethical perspective: that we would expose these two players to the group for having contributed the least—despite them having known at the beginning of the game that this was the case. It's interesting to me that people would say this isn't ethical, because we use this form of punishment all the time in society in all different sorts of ways. If we view it unethically in the academic environment, and yet we're using it a lot in society, it makes it very hard to make any sort of empirical statements about what we should or shouldn't do in the future. Either we should get rid of social exposure entirely in society, or we should test it in a lab and see how it works, but we can't continue this disjuncture between having lots of it in real life and nothing in the lab. What we were able to show is that the threat of shame increased cooperation by about 50 percent. You don't get a lot of movement because there's a binary choice between whether or not they want to give one dollar or not in these games, but I find that that's interesting, because unlike the other forms of punishment in these games it was just reputation. It was only that they had to stand up in front of the crowd at the end. Nothing more. But we did recruit students, and this would be hard, again, in the replication. They would have to read very closely who came from the same class, so they did know that they would see one another again in the future, which matters, of course, to ultimately maybe more resources or reputational effects down the line.

One way in which social science can also push the field is to look at these different forms of punishment in cooperative dilemmas or otherwise, in part, because they do scale, and also because, again, we have them widely used in society, but not actually looked at empirically.

In my work I have tried to look for studies that used shame in various ways, maybe not in a lab experiments, but there were studies that used it in natural field experiments, especially with voting behavior, and they were interesting because they find that shaming actually leads to the greatest change. The experiments involved sending letters that said here's your voting record and here's your neighbor's voting record, and after the next election we're going to send you an updated version of this. They were basically threatening exposure to your neighbors of your own voting behavior, and this single piece of mail actually increased voting by eight or nine percent, and normally no piece of mail works better than one percent.

On the other hand, with one of the shaming conditions, so many people called and were angry about it that ultimately they decided not to do part of the experiment, which in this case was to publish the names in the newspaper. It shows that shaming might be very effective as a tool, but very impermissible as a means of changing society. This is what I'm looking at now, ways in which you can make shaming more effective as a tool, which, again, you have to just be completely agnostic about. And then there's the bigger question that is more on the normative side of things, which is just because it's effective does that mean it's acceptable in society? Does that mean that we want to use it?

A real-world case, in which shaming was very effective, was when Amnesty International went after the U.S. in the international media for executing juveniles. Until the law was changed in 2005, we were one of the only countries, certainly the only Western country that is executing juveniles. Amnesty International conducted a large-scale shaming campaign that worked, which points to a few things.

Shaming, in this case, was a fairly low-cost form of punishment that had high reputational impact on the U.S. government, and led to a change in behavior. It worked at scale, one group of people using it against another group of people at the group level. This is the kind of scale that interests me. And the other thing that it points to, which is interesting, is the question of when shaming works. In part, it's when there's an absence of any other option. Shaming is a little bit like antibiotics. We can overuse it and actually dilute its effectiveness, because it's linked to attention, attention is finite. With punishment, in general, using it sparingly is best. But in the international arena, and in cases in which there is no other option, there is no formalized institution, or no formal legislation, shaming might be the only tool that we have, and that's why it interests me.

It makes sense to me that evolutionarily speaking we would need harsher forms of punishment, because if shaming was perfectly effective, if shaming was the ultimate tool, we wouldn't throw people in prison, behead them, or anything like that. It is, I would argue, a hit or miss type tool. It can really work, or not work well, depending on a lot of things that I'm trying to explore in doing research which looks at what makes shaming more or less acceptable, and what makes it more or less effective.


DAVID PIZARRO: The features that make shame a handy tool also in some ways are what make people very afraid of it. For instance, in order to make something legal there are usually procedures you have to go through, where you can get most of the members of society to agree that this ought to be outlawed. Shame can be used as a tool to enforce something that a wide segment of people might not believe, the person themselves might actually not believe, so unlike with guilt you don't have to endorse that you did something wrong to experience shame. And it is, as you pointed out, powerful. So we get things like slut shaming, right?


PIZARRO: And just because any group of people can decide that you ought to feel shame, they can exert this social pressure that could be—as you rightly point out because it's such a fundamental part of our human nature—arbitrary, capricious, and in the hands of people who could just decide on a whim that they don't like you. The tradeoff and why many people may be against it and another problem is you could have, for instance, is that with the Internet you have this vigilantism of shame where it's such low cost to shame somebody else that the fear is of tyranny, this particular kind of emotional tyranny that doesn't seem … like, strangers can't make me feel that guilty, but they can sure make me feel shame. Is there anything to the thought that as effective as it might be, we should just get rid of it?

JACQUET: Get rid of it? Yes. Absolutely. The main argument here is that shaming undermines human dignity. The role of the state, or one if its goals should be to protect human dignity, and, therefore, we should outlaw shaming for individuals entirely, something I am not that opposed to.

PIZARRO: Well, not laws. I'm saying as like good people, like a law … in fact, without laws …

JACQUET: You're saying why not just have a law instead of the shaming?

PIZARRO: No. I'm saying that as human beings we should frown on the use of shame. I don't know whether laws can change people.

JACQUET: Imagine the type of law that you would need, especially in the digital space, and how it would be operational. How it would affect what we would argue would be free speech, or activism, or because it’s just words. That's the crazy power of shame. I am in favor of the state not being involved in shaming individuals. I don't know about other people. It's very hard to control behavior. There's some level of decency that should speak to this. That's why I'm interested in using shame at the group level.

There are cases, in fact, with individuals in which it's warranted. We had talked about civil servants earlier, and things like that, and certainly there are very strong arguments. The argument I find even more compelling is the cost on the audience. The reason why shame works is that there's an audience that you imagine is endorsing this position, and for shame to really work there has to be an audience that's heckling. This can be some kind of imaginary audience, such as a bunch of fake Twitter names. Again, all of us, as in the antibiotic case, would benefit from shame at least being used very, very sparingly, even for our own just audience-member perspective, because shame demands our attention, let alone the fact that we could eventually become its victim. But while shame is absolutely the last resort, I don't think we should take it off the table entirely.

DAVID RAND: As an opposite of Dave's question, I had a thought on how to do it better, more effectively, that is.

LAURIE SANTOS:  Good David and Bad David.

RAND: Like the case with the voting study, which is cool, and what we've been doing in our observability field studies, with the blackout prevention. They both have potential for the same thing, because basically, while you can question whether it's shame or a celebration of people doing good things, either way it's reducing privacy and making people's behavior observable to people around them, right? It's a huge thing that if it's obvious that the reason that you're doing it is to shame them, it pisses people off. But there's ways that you can provide exactly the same information with a different purported purpose, and it can be effective without pissing people off.

In the case of the blackout prevention study, it wasn't a case of putting your name and address on the signup sheet so that the other people will see you, it's just that when you have a signup sheet, it seems like a natural thing that you're going to have to put your name and address on it. I'm sure that for people in the observability condition, it never occurred to them that that was being manipulated. Or, with other kinds scaling versions of that, i.e., if you want to have something where you advertise on Facebook that you did some energy-improving remodeling of your house, or something like that, we can't say, "Put this badge on your Facebook page to show off to people how good of a person you are," because people will be unhappy. But instead we can say “People don't know about this program, so if you post this badge other people will know, and that will help spread the word.” I guess it's a little bit harder with shaming. Perhaps that's another question. What do you think about shaming versus celebrating?

JACQUET: The observability stuff, even the eyes example, are cool and interesting experiments, but it turns out the effect wears off after like 12 months, without any real punishment coming in, even CCTV effects. Regarding observability, I would argue you can get these spikes in improvement, but for the long term it doesn't necessarily play out in the same way. And also, with the blackout stuff, the cooperative dilemma is quite different.

Then, for instance, let's look at the tax delinquent problem. There are tax delinquents in every state. If you can imagine some system of observability or transparency it would be unfair if you paid your taxes on time—if there was a list that said: paid taxes on time and listed the amount. A lot of us don't want people to know our salaries, or our taxes. But in the case of California they say: we're going to publish online the names of tax delinquents, and we're going to actually send them a letter in advance, so they have six months to avoid being posted, which is also key. The threat of shame is more effective than the act of shame, because once you’ve shamed the delinquent you create a reputational effect where people think the damage is done, so why not continue to defy the norm.

But on top of that, California only exposes the top 500 worst. It's actually a protective. It's not transparency. It's not every tax delinquent. It's just the very worst. I would argue observability in this case to the general population would be very undesirable, but the shaming option is perfectly acceptable. That's where with the blackout system there's less variability in behavior overall—the tax example is almost like a power law distribution.

RAND:  I mean to me what you just said is observability. All observability means is making some information about what people do salient or available to other people. 

JACQUET: Sure. I'm just using observability as a synonym for transparency, where you expose everyone's behavior, and shaming as a targeted exposure on the minority of bad actors, which is a key distinction in the way the policies play out. It's really different.

RAND:  Right. But then whether shaming the bad actors or celebrating the good actors is going to be more effective probably depends on which is more common. In the blackout study we had about five percent of people signing up.

JACQUET: But imagine celebrating the good actors in the tax issue. You would never do this, right?

RAND:  Exactly, because that's a situation where that's the very common …

JACQUET: It's not that it's very common. It's that …

PIZARRO: That's what Molly was saying about above and beyond.

MOLLY CROCKETT: Yes. Well, not just that, but this very question has been worked out theoretically by Roland Benabou who has looked at, in a theoretical, mathematical sense, which is more effective, celebrating or shaming, and it turns out that it really depends on the base rate. He gives the example of hybrid cars. Initially, hybrid cars were quite rare, and so incentives worked really well and celebrating worked really well, because you get a free pass to drive in the carpool lane, so on and so forth, and that encourages take-up of that behavior. But then once it becomes widespread then the optimal strategy shifts towards shaming those who violate the norm.

JACQUET: But it depends on more than just the distribution curves as well. You can imagine that with climate change, we could honor the countries that are actually doing something about it. But without everybody on board it doesn't matter, because it's a threshold collective risk dilemma. Therefore, the type of problem actually defines which one you go for rather than just the distribution. That's why the two probably intersect in an interesting theoretical way.

FIERY CUSHMAN: We've addressed several times today this question of do you want to just achieve a behavior, or does it matter what the psychology underlying the behavior is, and we've talked about that in terms of the agency of the individual and what counts as truly moral behavior, but there's also just utility consequences.

I could keep myself awake by drinking a delicious latte, or by poking myself in the eye continuously. Maybe poking myself in the eye is a better way of keeping myself awake, but the latte tastes better. And one might also think that being in a society that focuses on celebration to the maximum extent possible and uses shame as little as possible is just going to make for a happier citizenry, even if there's a slight hit that you take in terms of the behavior that you want to maximize.

JACQUET: That's where the issue of human dignity gets interesting, because yes, at the psychological level that's probably true, and shame is this horrible, terrible thing that we hope to all avoid, but at that group level, where you could argue that corporations don't have the same level of human dignity, or Congress doesn't have human dignity, or the U.S., or Yemen, or whoever, then things get a little more interesting, because then you're saying this is just about reputation, and we don't mind hurting their dignity, because the people can come or go from that group as they please, and because of that you can say it's an effective tool, and we might have taken it off the table for these psychological reasons that don't apply at scale.

JOSHUA KNOBE: I'm following-up on Fiery's question about what is it that makes us so resistant to the use of shame as a method. Consider your case of tax evaders. Suppose someone said: “We have two options. One is to put tax evaders in prison, and the other is to put billboards on the street -- for instance, a big picture of the tax evader.” And then suppose that the tax evaders all prefer the billboard; they would much rather have a billboard with their picture saying that they're a tax evader than to go to prison. I would still feel terrible about it. It still seems so demeaning to have the billboard. You don't feel like there's something drawing us away from shame that goes beyond …?

RAND: Prison is pretty bad.

KNOBE: In a sense, as a society, we don't want to be the society that has the billboards?

JACQUET: I do feel that way, in part because again, as the audience, I'm asked to be part of that, I'm asked to be complicit in the punishment, and a good democracy was based on the idea that the state has the only authority to punish at severe levels.

SARAH-JAYNE BLAKEMORE: What about the relationship between religion and shame? Because that seems like it hasn't been mentioned, but some religions seem like institutionalized shame.

JACQUET: Sure. The Scarlet Letter was a product of the church itself. Maybe the government was more in favor of what God thought was right than what the majority thought was right, but it hurt human dignity, and there are long-term consequences that aren't great for individual psychology.

BLAKEMORE: They still embraced religion.

JACQUET: This is what happens when you lack formalized punishment. It's what Foucault argued in Discipline and Punish, with prisons. When you could send someone away to prison this made a lot of shaming punishments go away, because there was another formalized mechanism for punishment that we didn't have before. We didn't have that liberty option for deprivation. Reputation was one of the only forms aside from life, from cutting somebody's arm off, or taking their house away, etc.

And this is why shaming is used in the tax case. At the federal level you can go to prison, so there is no shaming option there, but at the state level all they can do is confiscate second homes and luxury vehicles, and in the time it would take for them to get that legislation changed, because there's so much resistance to anything related to legislation and taxes, anything, they said here's our stopgap. We're going to use reputation, and we're going to get back $340 million, which makes it totally worth their while, as it only costs them $180,000 a year to run.

In our society we ideally want these punishments formalized, and we want due process in all these things, but in the interim, it's an interesting sort of group punishment that's accessible to everyone, which is the scary thing about it.

HUGO MERCIER:  I have a quick question about this scaling that you mentioned, how it works exactly, in that I couldn't imagine how shaming would work if no single individual feels ashamed. That is, Congress can't feel shame obviously, so if any individual congressman or congresswoman doesn't feel shame, then why would they do anything?

JACQUET: I'm not even certain that shaming's effectiveness is because of an emotion. It could just be linked to reputation and the fear of losing resources down the road. There are a lot of psychopathic people who would still respond to shame out of the fear of them being ostracized, or out of fear of something harsher later.