Public shaming, in this era of rapid judgment and ensuing internet outrage, is nothing new. But the pandemic has made it a popular pastime.
Runners have been berated for exercising without masks. City dwellers have been criticized for congregating in parks. And beachgoers have been condemned for hitting the sand.
The pandemic has heightened the stakes for every small decision we make about our lives, and people are naturally on edge. But experts say shaming other individuals for apparently going against the rules – or, public shaming for what you may perceive as public good – isn’t usually the best route to take.
Here’s why we shame others – and why we shouldn’t.
Why we do it
It’s often a natural response: Shaming or scolding others for not abiding by the rules is a natural response, says June Tangney, a clinical psychologist and professor at George Mason University.
The pandemic has people understandably worried about their safety. So when someone acts in a way that appears to be putting others at risk, we might get scared or angry. And one way we might express those emotions is by aggressively confronting those who are engaging in behaviors that make us feel uncomfortable.
“When we’re scared and when we see people doing something that endangers all of us, it’s a natural tendency to want to shame them,” Tangney said. “It’s just not a good approach if, bottom line, you want to see their behavior change.”
We may feel like we’re missing out: The impulse to shame someone else might also be driven by FOMO, or the fear of missing out, Tangney said.
Perhaps you’ve been diligently wearing a mask on the rare occasions you leave the house, and you haven’t been socializing with others. Then you see the images circulating on the internet of runners and cyclists not wearing masks, of people hanging out at crowded pool parties or of beachgoers enjoying a sunny weekend.
We already know that mass gatherings can endanger lives by potentially spreading the virus to large numbers of people, prolonging and worsening the devastation we’re already navigating. So it’s normal to feel frustrated by such scenarios, though it’s worth noting that some, like running and cycling outside, are relatively low risk.
“We get this image of half a country having a party that most of us are not doing,” Tangney said. “It’s natural to become angry and also be afraid and to want to shame people, because we believe if we shame them, they’ll stop doing this bad thing. But unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
Why it’s usually not effective
The thing about shaming is that it doesn’t really work, says Tangney.
It can have the opposite effect: Scolding someone for not following the rules is usually done with the intention of changing that person’s behavior. But it typically has the opposite effect.
People don’t like being told what to do. And when they’re shamed for behaviors that just months ago felt harmless, they’re likely to feel attacked and become defensive, Tangney said. Instead of complying, they might minimize or deny any harm their actions may be causing.
“You’re more likely to hit a brick wall,” she said. “And if anything, they’re going to dig their heels in and be less likely to think about grandma and the other people at home or whomever they’re seeing.”
It drives the behavior underground: Shaming doesn’t mean that people won’t engage in risky behaviors. Rather, it drives the behaviors underground, says Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
It’s something Marcus knows well from her work as an HIV researcher. Abstinence-only messaging doesn’t work for sex, research shows. Telling people to refrain from seeing their friends or going outside for an indefinite period of time won’t work either.
“When we have an all-or-nothing approach to prevention, which is what we’ve been seeing in our public health messaging around the coronavirus, we tend to inadvertently stigmatize anything people do that’s not 100% risk reduction,” she said.
She gives a hypothetical example of a group of people getting singled out for congregating in a pool. The group may then choose not to gather again publicly for fear of backlash. Instead, they might hold a house party indoors, where they’re safe from public view – but in an enclosed space, where the risk of infection is higher.
If an outbreak occurred in that instance and contact tracers were trying to determine who has been exposed, the people who attended the party may be afraid to acknowledge that they were at the event – and health officials can’t reliably contain the virus.
“Then our public health response ends up breaking down,” Marcus said.
To avoid that breakdown and the high-risk pool party itself, Marcus says our public health messaging needs to convey nuance. People need to feel as though they have other options for social contact so that they don’t feel compelled to behave in high-risk ways.
Why it can be problematic
It turns us into the behavior police: The guidance around whether masks should be worn and how the virus is transmitted are constantly evolving. Different states have different restrictions. And federal, state and local authorities have often implemented rules that conflict with each other, making things confusing for everyday citizens.
Nancy Berlinger, research scholar at bioethics think tank The Hastings Center, said messaging on when and how to wear masks needs to be clearer.
“In these everyday interactions with masks, should everyone be turning themselves into the mask police?” she said. “Or should we absolutely make sure that everyone understands why this is important, how to do it, where to get masks and figure out friendly ways of encouraging each other?”
It makes assumptions about others’ behaviors: We don’t always know someone else’s situation.
Maybe that the shopper you’re side-eyeing at the grocery store just forgot to wear a mask, or perhaps they don’t have access to one. Those people you see crowded next to each other on blankets in parks might be a part of the same household, or they might have formed a double bubble. And others may feel unsafe wearing masks because of their race.
And the photos of seemingly crowded public spaces that often make the rounds online can be misleading, because different camera lenses can affect the appearance of depth.
It exploits our biases: Shaming people who aren’t following the rules could also align with other biases about who does things wrong in a society, says Berlinger.
“Do you notice teenagers not wearing masks but you don’t notice other middle aged people like yourself?” she asks.
Shame is connected to power, Berlinger said, and those who publicly call out others for supposedly violating safety protocols often feel as if they can do so without consequences. Nonwhite people generally don’t have that privilege, and are also disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for violating safety protocols.
It misplaces blame: Scolding people for seemingly violating safety norms also places blame on individuals for our current situation, instead of holding institutions accountable, says Marcus.
“Shaming individuals who are at a party or in a park may give us a sense of control in the moment, but it’s misplaced energy,” Marcus said.
Individuals do carry some responsibility in reducing a community’s risk, she said. But in the grand scheme of things, most cases in the US are not arising from pool parties and other outdoor activities. Rather, they appear to be originating from so-called “superspreader events,” where an infected person attends an indoor gathering with large numbers of people, like funerals, birthday parties or religious gatherings.
Fixating on individuals who are flouting the rules distracts from wider, institutional failures to scale up testing and contact tracing so that society can reopen safely, Marcus said.
What we should do instead
If you see someone behaving in ways that are risky or make you feel uncomfortable, there are still some things you can do.
Consider a kinder approach: Instead of aggressively confronting someone about not wearing a mask, you can kindly ask them to put one on. Share what your concerns are, and let the other person ultimately make the decision for themselves.
“The approach itself is the most important thing,” said life coach and columnist Susie Moore.
Make your request as easy as possible: If you’re concerned that someone isn’t wearing a mask, offer them one.
Give them the benefit of the doubt: There’s a lot of fear and anger being felt right now, and a little compassion can go a long way.
“It’s okay to remember that we’re all human beings, we’re still figuring it out and we can still talk to each other kindly,” she said.
Our current moment will continue to require collective action, and that includes doing what we can to keep each other safe. But we are navigating new norms and a new normal. So we, accustomed to a world of judge-first-assess-later, need to embrace something else anew: empathy and understanding – from everyone.