Should sustainability leverage shame and guilt?

Should sustainability leverage shame and guilt?

In my previous post, we defined shame and guilt. Shame is “what is supposed to occur after an individual fails to cooperate with the group,” according to environmental economist Jennifer Jacquet. “Shame regulates social behavior and serves as a forewarning of punishment: conform or suffer the consequences.” Guilt, on the other hand, is what happens when an individual violates his or her own code of conduct – it’s values in reverse. So shame is the result of violating group standards, whereas guilt lives in the realm of violating personal standards.

Guilt, as we all know, is an important emotion. But here’s the catch – since it’s only felt by individuals, it can only motivate individuals. And furthermore, a person only feels guilt if there’s an existing value present. If there’s no existing value, then there’s no guilt about behaviors. In other words, if someone doesn’t consider the environment important, then they don’t feel any guilt about doing something that may cause damage.

What we believe and practice here at Shelton Group is that it’s our job to make it easier for people to change their behaviors without changing their fundamental or foundational values. If you think behavior change is hard (which it is!), just try to change someone’s basic set of values and you’ll quickly realize that it’s nearly impossible. Only an individual can truly evolve their own value set as they go through life.

So if guilt only works on an individual level, what works on a larger level? Shame. Take a British neighborhood, for example. They have a YouTube channel that broadcasts video of “litter louts” discarding their trash in the streets instead of the bin. Or several newspapers that publish the names and addresses of the top water users in areas where water is scarce. In each of these examples, individual behavior impacts the group and in each of these cases shame probably works.

But when faced, like we are, with large-scale challenges, changing individual behavior isn’t enough. Sure, every little bit helps, but in the end, individual behavior change works best when the problem is small or there’s a long time to solve it.

Since we know that guilt can’t work on an organizational level, will shame produce results? In some cases, yes. For instance, the EPA began publishing a list of the largest polluters in the 1980s. Since the list went live, emissions of toxic chemicals dropped by nearly half. Grocery store chain Trader Joe’s was publically shamed into deciding not to sell overfished species and only sell sustainable seafood by the end of next year.

So what’s stopping shame from becoming a powerful tool for social change? Jacquet offers three reasons:

–        Most of today’s social interactions are one-offs. When you’re not likely to see a person again, if you feel no connection or obligation, there’s less incentive to change behavior. However, research shows that if you expect to see a person again, to interact with them, to form a relationship with them, willingness to cooperate improves.

–        It’s really easy to hide your true identity in today’s world. Consider the great lengths that Enron and Lehman Brothers went to in order to hide their true identities and their illicit actions. It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s a façade. Sometimes there’s a guise of cooperation but a hidden reality of damage.

–        Not everyone feels shame. Jacquet and her colleagues found that a certain portion of people consistently behave shamelessly if the payoff is high enough. When banks were failing by the week, bankers still got their bonuses. And some speculated that publishing the size of their bonuses wouldn’t produce shame but jealousy among other bankers instead.

History tells us that shame doesn’t produce large-scale social change. Slavery was abolished by war, not shame. Companies didn’t eliminate child labor because people shamed them into compliance – child labor was eliminated because of laws. In short, punishment is still needed because the truth is, shame isn’t enough.

For sustainability marketers, these are powerful truths. While eco-guilt is a real phenomenon, it’s not the most powerful button to press for many mainstream consumers because they don’t value the environment. That’s not part of their existing set of values, and that’s not going to change. And shame will only work in certain conditions where the scope is broader, but there are powerful cultural counterforces preventing shaming from producing social change.

In short, guilt will work for a small set of individual consumers and shame is no guarantee of behavior change. Your best bet is to understand those bedrock values and frame your message in a way that allows them to act sustainably without compromising those beliefs.

About the Author

Karen Barnes

Karen is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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