Monday, 20 June 2011


I recently read a crime novel, The Sea Detective, by Mark Douglas-Home, and it has set me pondering about shame. There are three crimes in the book, all deeply shameful, and one of the plausible things about the book is the way these are portrayed as generating deceitful behaviour on the part of their perpetrators and other people in some way implicated, including people who knew, but turned a blind eye. As time passes, their shame leads not only to hiding of the truth but also to self-deception.

I wonder if this is generally the case. Does shame always lead people to hide (from) the truth, and to lie, even to themselves?

If so, this draws into question one of the most common strategies of environmental and human rights campaigners - to 'name and shame' the perpetrators of wrong-doing, in the hope that this will drive them towards better behaviour. But if shame leads people to self-deception, then this strategy is bound to fail.

I think in particular about the climate change campaigns, which have set out to shame all of us jet-setters, drivers of gas-guzzling cars and general wasters for our enormous carbon footprints. But if shame leads to deceit, rather than guiding us to better behaviour, the result of this campaign will be wide-spread denial. Which we see.

I think of some of the campaigning I have done concerning the paper industry, and some of the defensive, under-the-carpet responses to well-documented finger-pointing exercises. It now seems obvious to me what was going on: we made our target companies feel ashamed and they reacted accordingly.

I think about educational situations, and why it is that we learn from some mistakes, but only if they are not pointed out to us in ways that make us feel ashamed for them. If we feel shame, we duck down and hide, and that dishonesty prevents us learning.

Maybe it seems obvious to you - but it took a good bit of detective fiction to help me see the importance of shame, what a powerful role it plays in our society and how much of a barrier it is to honesty. The accidental or deliberate causing of shame is, I now believe, a fundamental flaw in many campaign strategies aiming to change behaviour.


  1. I think you've hit on something quite significant Mandy. Nobody likes to be criticised, especially if they're wrong and I suspect that staff of an organisation often know they're wrong but they can't admit it without bringing down the disapproval of their bosses and some, at least, of their peers.

    The only organisation I have had some insight into is the Forestry Commission,and it is a relatively small organisation. In the early days, people like us criticised their defects and they dealt with their shame by pulling up the drawbridge and being quite patronising in their comments. We knew that individuals within FC agreed with us and said so privately. Gradually they did change, had to change, and gradually we congratulated them when they made a move in the right direction, such as forest networks or giving comunities access to public land. When the yoke of shame was removed, then they moved faster and further than we were expecting.

    So, I agree. Shame creates a powerful negative response and a bit of acknowledgement of good practice mixed in with criticism can be really helpful in allowing change to happen. It's important to remember that organisations are made up of people, no matter how powerful the company policies and three line whips.

  2. Shame has never been a prime motivator for me although it has possibly served as a deterrent. Pride is a much more powerful motivator but pride may be more personal and, therefore, difficult to use universally.