A Scandal

The Use, Abuse, and Profits of Shame and Pride

The economy of shame and pride is at work in human cultures everywhere. Public shaming can take aim at whole countries and companies or at random individuals. In The Shame Machine, Cathy O’Neil describes shame as the foundation for an industry that can destroy people:

“Humiliation lingers in the mind, the heart, the veins, the arteries forever. It allows people to brood for decades on end, often deforming their inner lives.”

But it is exhilarating for the people who wield it and profitable for the “shame industrial complex” that O’Neil describes in her book. She points at sellers of opioids who feed addiction and then evade responsibility by mocking their victims as “pillbillies” and directing employees to “hammer on the abusers in every way possible.”

She also identifies image-driven industries – cosmetics, diet, and fitness – as participants in this profit scheme. In her book, she describes her own struggles with shame about her body image and her recent bariatric surgery. It led her to recognize the systematic shaming of people with obesity who seek medical care.

Social Media Thriving on Shame and Pride

But above all, O’Neil describes social media as the indispensable cog of the shame machine she describes in her new book. Becca Rothfeld explains:

“The lesson O’Neil is keen to impart is that the primary drivers of online scandals are not isolated cyberbullies, tapping out vindictive screeds in the privacy of their home offices, but machine-learning algorithms that optimize for traffic.”

Thus, every one of us can be a participant in this marketplace, but hardly the masters of it.

The Economy of Shame and Pride

Luigi Butera and colleagues describe the economy of shame and pride in the American Economic Review. In fact, they measure its usefulness (utility) in a series of experiments:

“In all experiments, public recognition motivates desirable behavior but creates highly unequal image payoffs. High-performing individuals enjoy significant utility gains, while low-performing individuals incur significant utility losses.”

They conclude:

“In the case of social influence, an honest assessment of the psychological, political, philosophical, and literary studies of human motivation reveals that people’s well-being is intensely sensitive to the experience of shame and pride.”

Aim Higher

Jon Ronson writes about the boom of public shaming in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. He draws a line between calling out systemic abuses of power and shaming some poor schmuck who has just screwed up:

“One act was powerful and important — using social media to create a new civil rights battlefield. The other was a pointless and nasty cathartic alternative. Given that we are the ones with the power, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the difference.”

It’s worth remembering this difference. Shame and pride are powerful tools for social and economic gains. With misuse, they easily become destructive.

Click here, here, and here for more about The Shame Machine. For Butera’s paper click here, and click here for more on Ronson’s book.

A Scandal, painting by Jehan Georges Vibert / WikiArt

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March 24, 2022