The Limits of Shame

Andrew Sullivan picks up on a debate about shame’s influence on behavior:

Adam Serwer responds to Dreher’s post on stigmatizing having children out of wedlock:

Conservatives regularly overestimate the beneficial effects of shame. Shame provokes response in the form of impulse, not long term planning. A person who
is ashamed isn’t going to think, “I’d better get a degree” or “I’d better get married,” they’re going to think in the short term about what they can do to rectify their sense of self-worth.

How do you see people–men in particular–act when they’re ashamed? You rarely see them do something like get married or get a fantastic job; usually they’re going to hurt or exploit someone, make them feel as low as they do–this is the lesson learned by the shamed from the shamer, regardless of the lesson the shamer thinks they’re teaching the shamed.

I’m not sure it’s possible to encourage beneficial social behavior without in some ways discouraging destructive behavior. The key is emphasis. And a little positive reinforcement often goes a long way.

I’m not interested in entering this debate (in this space any way), but this issue of shame is relevant. I’ve posted before on people like Sally Satel, who are worried that the disease model will erode stigma (that’s a good thing!!!) and lower the threshold for people to misuse drugs and alcohol.

BTW – I’ve been watching the debate about Ta-Nehisi’s posts unfold for the last week. Good reading.

One thought on “The Limits of Shame

  1. Nice post. I agree that it’s important to emphasize long term solutions for people using drugs and alcohol. I think that shame only helps in the short term too. In reading a few of your other posts, I also thought about this in relationship to Obama’s new Drug Czar. I think he should focus on the long term intervention and getting to the root of the drug problem, instead of punishing people and making them feel guilty in the short term. Thanks for sharing!

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