Medical Examiner

Can We Shame Perpetrators of Sexual Misconduct Into Becoming Better People?

Probably. But we need to figure out how to correctly deploy this powerful emotional tool.

Man cowering in shame, man gazing upwards beginning to understand how to not be a terrible violent person.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Shame is a powerful emotion. We often need it to motivate fundamental change. Researchers have found that compared with guilt and regret, shame was the only emotion that led people to be motivated to change something about themselves in the long run.

To be effective, however, shame must be deployed correctly. As new accusations of sexual misconduct continue to surface and public outrage indicates that this behavior will no longer be tolerated, it’s worth considering whether and how we could best make use of this psychological tool. Shaming moral transgression and norm violations is one important aspect of how we shape our society. But we need to shame perpetrators effectively—if we manage to, we have a greater chance of getting them to stop reoffending.

Shame is felt when some aspect of one’s character, or indeed one’s whole self, is fundamentally flawed, regarding moral transgressions, lacking competence, or inappropriate social behavior. The focus is on being a bad person, which differs from guilt, where the focus is on bad behavior. Guilt motivates you to make up for the specific guilt-inducing behavior, and once you’ve done that, it disappears. But shame could be the most useful emotion when long-lasting change is needed because the focus is on oneself, rather than the event, which forces the individual to acknowledge that unless he or she commits to changing, the behavior could be repeated.

The sentiments expressed by some of those facing sexual misconduct allegations have spanned the spectrum of admitting culpability. For example, Mark Halperin avoided shame when he said “my behavior was inappropriate and caused others pain.” Focusing on his behavior could imply that it was merely something he did, rather than his character that led to the behavior.

Others, such as Matt Lauer have expressed regret (although, in Lauer’s case, this later changed to “ashamed and embarrassed”). Regret suggests you wish you chose a different path, but doesn’t commit you to preventing transgressions in the future.

In contrast, consider the language James Franco used on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert when questioned about the allegations against him: “In my life, I pride myself on taking responsibility for things that I’ve done … I do it whenever I know there is something wrong or needs to be changed, I make it a point to do it.” This hits home the key issue, which is that it is the perpetrator who needs to fundamentally change.

Shaming others works because people care about what others think of them, about their reputation and belonging to groups that are important to them. Shame is an emotion that lets us know we are in danger of being excluded from the group. We shame others when they have violated societal norms, which reflect the values and acceptable behavior in groups and societies.

This is what we have seen in Hollywood. First, Harvey Weinstein was fired from the company he co-founded, and Matt Lauer from NBC. Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and Brett Ratner all had projects cancelled. John Conyers and Al Franken both resigned from their political positions, and Roy Moore was not elected to the Senate. Companies and other affiliates want to be seen as punishing perpetrators, as stripping them of their positions of power to signal that this behavior will not be tolerated, and to distance themselves from them.

A key aspect of shame motivating change, however, is that it only works if we think we can change the flawed aspect of our character, according to a recent meta-analysis. If the shameful act is repairable, then shame makes you commit to change—it lets you know you need to change and the negative feeling gives you the motivation to do so.

But if the ashamed person thinks they cannot repair the flawed part of themselves, they will hide and wait for it to blow over without any real attempt to reform. One study on competency failures found that when improving themselves was perceived to be very difficult, shame led to a greater desire to protect their reputation, rather than motivation to improve. If you try to reform and fail, it is even more painful than covering it up, because you risk losing face in front of others or damaging your self-esteem even more. This suggests that when reform appears too difficult or even impossible, shame leads to withdrawing and saving face rather than the motivation to reform (it’s important to note that this research is on competency failures, not moral transgressions).

Still, the emphasis on reform is reflected in a point made by Bryan Cranston when asked whether there is a way back for sexual perpetrators. He argues that if they show us that they are truly sorry, do not make excuses, and admit they have “a deeply rooted psychological and emotional problem,” then there is the possibility for forgiveness. He adds that “we shouldn’t close it off and say: ‘To hell with him, rot and go away from us for the rest of your life’… Let’s leave it open for the few that can make it through that gauntlet of trouble … maybe it’s possible.” It is possible for sex offenders to repent; some have.

That shame can be appropriately deployed is borne out in lower recidivism rates for sex offenders treated with respect, and higher rates for those who experienced stigma and low self-esteem. This suggests that if the emphasis is on acknowledgement and rehabilitation rather than stigmatizing and shunning, reoffending may be lower. On the other hand, life-destroying shaming may act as an effective deterrent from attempts to change.

Rehabilitation programs, by definition, instill participants with the belief that they can reform. They can be an important part of how society deals with deviance, though they are not a panacea, and this is not to say we must forgive everyone as soon as they finish the program. It may not work for everyone, but it will for some. Neither am I suggesting that we replace prison sentences with rehabilitation—simply that rehabilitation should be a key aspect of dealing with anyone who has transgressed. It’s also worth remembering that showing remorse and shame is just the first step; it provides the motivation to change, but it does not signal change itself.

The take home message is this: Perpetrators who feel like they are permanently defective people may run and hide, possibly without trying to adjust their behavior. But if they feel like a part of themselves is defective but changeable, they may be more likely to own up to their failures and be motivated to reform. This suggests that as a society, in the media and in daily life, treating perpetrators like social pariahs may not be the best path toward a healthier society. Research suggests the most effective way to shame perpetrators is to express that this is not acceptable, that their time’s up. But that admonishment shouldn’t come with irrevocable condemnation—perpetrators should be encouraged to seek professional help and to stick with it for as long as necessary. Using shame in this way could lead to fewer cases of sexual misconduct in the future—a goal worth striving for.