The good in gossip and shaming

by Mar 18, 2012Adultery0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes
I have been wondering for a while whether we have lost as well as gained something from the way we as a society no longer do ‘shaming’ in the way some cultures have in the past. Ok we did give Murdoch a bit of a run for his money over phone-tapping and there has been some pressure on bankers, but compared to what used to happen, this is rather mild. I suspect for most if us the public shaming by shaving the heads of French women who consorted with Nazis would be seen as bad taste now. We do not tattoo people who have committee crimes or make them wear special clothes anymore. We have the police, and judges and politicians to theoretically enforce the law and what is right and wrong.

Most studies of traditional hunter gatherer societies, those most like the ones we are likely to have done most of our evolving in as a species, have cultures in which social order and mores a reinforced strongly, but shaming plays a very central part. A few very interesting pieces of research have come out in recent weeks which help us see what a powerful process shaming is. Kipling Williams and colleagues from Purdue University have studied thousands of people to see how they cope with ostracism. They have found, by simulating experiences of being ostracised, that people literally feel pain. When someone is ignored or given the silent treatment generally it is the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex which is very active, and it is that same area that also registers physical pain. Humans have depended on group membership to survive, we are a hyper-social species, and being cast out or not included has grave consequences.

Interestingly we are also learning more and more about the role of gossip as a behaviour which benefits the social group, and often also the individual gossip. Robb Willer and colleagues from the University of California discovered that most of us tend to get very stressed when we see behaviour which is unfair or immoral. In games when we observe a player cheat our heart rate tends to go up. However when we then gossip about this cheating to a new player, interestingly our heart rates go right down again, and we feel relieved.  In the experimental games that Willer set up, people were prepared to make big personal sacrifices to warn other people about cheating, including sacrificing money they would otherwise have earned for participating in the experiment. In fact it was the most prosocial and altruistic people who gossiped the most about cheating, even to their own detriment. Such  typically human behaviours might have been vital to maintaining strong groups, so vital for survival  in early human societies. The fear of gossip, like the fear of ostracism, is a powerful force. We know that in such games when the players are told that there is a possibility that other players would gossip, and thus that cheats might suffer a major loss in reputation, then the players are far less likely to cheat. We care a lot about our reputations and about fairness. There are I am sure major lessons here about how we might be running our societies differently, with more transparency, openness and expectation of decency, fairness and justice. This is especially the case maybe in a week when a former senior executive of Goldman Sachs resigned and went public in describing immoral attitudes and practices and a frankly shocking view of customers who were described as ‘muppets’ and worse.


K. D. Williams, S. A. Nida. Ostracism: Consequences and Coping. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2011; 20 (2): 71 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411402480

Matthew; Willer, Robb; Stellar, Jennifer; Keltner, Dacher; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published online 9 Jan 2012; DOI: 10.1037/a0026650; Link to Abstract.

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