The Power of Shame to Fix Low Trust

Randy Schumann Pay Your BillLongtime friend of TrustMatters Shaula, together with hubby Neil, ran across the photo you see on the right here while on the road in Montana. (Click here to see the web version if you’re reading in text).

It seems that one Randy Schumann may have an account in arrears at the local Gas Mart.  And the retailer in question has resorted to a time-honored tradition to enforce some social justice.


Let me suggest, in all seriousness, that we need more Tiger-Town justice, and less Sarbanes-Oxley types of solutions. 

Shame–for lack of a better word–can be good social policy.

Positive Uses of Shame in Creating Public Trustworthiness

The Tiger Town in Montana is hardly alone. 

* Think about the “perp walk,” used by cops and prosecutors quite consciously.  As Wikipedia puts it, “Perp walks are often done to politicians or businesspeople accused of white-collar crimes (whose reputations may be susceptible to damage by public spectacle).”

Rat* The use of the giant inflatable rat as a shaming device is a long-time tool of unions.  But it goes further; the rat is protected legally (I’m not kidding, see here) as a form of free speech.

* Let’s not forget about the (used to be, anyway) power of investigative journalism.  The notion of muck-raking in the US ; the power that the Washington Post put behind Watergate, or the New York Times behind the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

* Local TV news shows delight in consumer protection episodes that go by names like the Wall of Shame, our version of the Puritans’ placing people in the stocks in the middle of town. Cops know it’s more effective to post photos of Johns than of prostitutes (so do town governments, which is why that doesn’t often happen). 

Shame Works by Enforcing Social Standards

It may seem obvious, but let’s take a moment to see why shame works.

Most people intuitively agree with Justice Brandeis that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  Transparency is a valuable social vehicle for increasing trustworthiness in our institutions.  Disclosure is a bedrock of legislative regulation—in pharmaceuticals, financial services, and environmental policy.  The idea is that organizations will not put out to the public things that they would prefer not be seen by the public. 

The most powerful thing about shame is that it works by enforcing social standards.  If the behavior that is exposed runs strongly counter to public instinct, then the power of shame is large.

If you are ashamed by something, it means you fear the judgment of the public.  To be ashamed, on a very personal level, means to feel the rejection of our peers.  It is a powerful effect, and serious medicine when administered at scale.

Shame Should be Part of the Response to Financial Scandals

The popular press is all over Washington to do something to prevent further abuses in the financial sector.  The pressure is building, because so far very little has been done.

Part of the problem is that “what should be done” has come to rhyme with massive, heavy-handed governmental regulation.  Worse yet, most of that regulation has to do a combination of prohibition (Glass-Steagall)  and massive efforts at compliance and disclosure.

The problem with disclosure alone is it rapidly degenerates into mountains of fine-print, while accomplishing nothing in terms of felt social obligation on the part of those writing it.

The problem with structural change alone (think Sarbanes-Oxley) is that it’s expensive, and the opportunity costs are even higher than the outlays.  Just think of the massive price we pay every day in airports because we haven’t figured out a socially acceptable way to keep terrorists from planes other than forcing granny in Dubuque to dump her over-sized tube of toothpaste when she boards a plane.

I’m far from alone in this.  Read the devastating critique by famed Madoff whistle-blower Harry Markopolis.  He suggests that what we do not need is the routinized, predictable box-checking approach to compliance.  Instead, we need randomized, aggressive sampling, followed by publicity. 

Exactly. Unexpected audits, followed by the application of shame.  Bring on the judgment of the people who own the society, who are the ultimate source of the approval of whatever goes on in our society. 

Enough with laws and regs; up with enforcement and shame.

And Randy—about that account.  The Rat is next.

9 replies
  1. Michael Holt
    Michael Holt says:

    And what if Randy had paid his bill, and the gas station got it wrong?  Or if they were genuinely in dispute? Or if Randy had been, well, randy with the gas station’s daughter, and this was payback?

    This example is a throwback to the good ‘ol days when everyone lived in small communities and knew everyone else and people could leave doors unlocked.

    Its a different world now, but even so, I’ve never belived that threat of punishment, of any kind, actually deters.  If it did, there are lots of bad things that might not happen…


    Best wishes to all, Michael



  2. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Hmmmm… I’m not so sure about shame as an effective strategy. Accountability, absolutely. Which I think is what is underneath your message, Charlie. My concern about shame is that it’s an incredibly destructive emotion. With accountability, it might be possible to get that bill paid AND have Randy become a life-long customer who pays on time (he’ll feel better about himself when he pays his bill, and might associate those positive feelings with the people who helped him get back in integrity); with shame he will forever feel that inner "ick." I wouldn’t wish that "ick" on any of my clients, no matter how old the A/R.

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Good question, Charlie. There’s an interesting study, "The Power of Shame and the Rationality of Trust" (Steve Davis, UC Berkeley, Haas School of Business, 2007) that supports your premise. Not that you need support.

    Me: I think that all bad behavior deserves consequences. Good choices have benefits; bad choices have consequences. Consequences have to be broached in the same breath as accountability, i.e., "….or else…"

    I think the shame aspect here needs to be introduced as a conscious choice on the part of the wrong-doer, "If you do/don’t do this, then you are choosing to embarrass yourself and here’s what that embarrassment will look like (name on the sign, etc.) So, that’s your choice. In this instance, "if you choose to pay, then…"; " If you choose not to…then…"

    On the other hand, there are those who act egregiously and about whom we often say, "have you no shame?" These are the folks who won’t respond to shame and, even more, if they are emotionally or psychologically "off" in some way, may react in a disrespectful, destructive or hurtful way after being shamed. So, caution is advised – especially in our knee-jerk, reactive, abusive and violent culture.

    For many folks, when they experience shame which brings a real or perceived cut-off from connection or belonging to others, their shame may serve to support self-destructive behavior, attacking or humilating others. So, there’s a cost, as well as a benefit, from shaming another. A tricky two-edged coin – shame as a solution and shame as a provocation to even more destrucive behavior.

    Then, is there a difference between guilt and shame, between "I did something bad" and "I am bad?" Some will say guiting a person is the the rigth way to go. Guilt does not have the same "charge" or debilitating impact that shame does. And, maybe this is just a matter of semantics. Not sure.

    At any rate, I think if one is going to use shame on another to gain compliance, shaming should be presented as an option to the wrong-doer and not imposed without an up-front discussion about why shaming may be imposed.

    Frankly, I’m a big fan of non-violent communication.

  4. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    I love the concept of “The Village of a Thousand People”. In the village of a thousand poeple we wouldn’t have bailed out a village banks. We would have known how poorly the bank had been run, we’d have sorted out how a stable local bank would have taken over the assets and responsibilities of the failed bank, and the failed banks managers (very well know to us locally) would have been found gainful employment doing something less risky to the rest of us – like ploughing. After all they are a useful labour asset to the village, and they are our neighbours and friends – but importantly they are well known to everyone.

    Shame only works in small communities like a small trade association or niche market.

    Shame really doesn’t work in a big city – everyone’s anonamous. Who cares, who knows? Before I got married I had eight serious girlfriends in London – never ever seen any of them again. But around the small town I now live in, my friends tell me they see their past loves every few days. How’s that to keep you on the straight and narrow?

    I agree that transparency is good. I’m happy that the client knows pretty much everything about me. Mostly the querky things you might feel nervous about are the very things that make you memorable. Sometime soon I’m going to start a conference presentation with a guitar solo – 30 seconds of blistering solo followed by me hurling the guitar across the stage. They’ll never forget that speech – ever! It confronts something unusual about me – I’ve had a seven year sabbatical from business playing rock – but it’s not a secret.


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