Never Mind Whether Shaming Is Good or Bad; Does It Work?

Before you post new photos of a crowded park or yell at a stranger to mask up, read this.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
May 21, 2020, 8:11pm
Does pandemic public shaming work?
Cathryn Virginia

While the rules and regulations about staying safe continuously change throughout the coronavirus pandemic, public shaming has remained the chosen informal way of policing the supposed bad behavior of friends, neighbors, and strangers. It started in New York in early March, when people began shouting from their windows at anyone out out and about despite urging to stay home and flatten the curve, and continued through the spring, as residents fled their homes for other locales, potentially spreading the virus. And now, as summer comes to an anticlimactic start—and especially in New York City, the pandemic’s U.S. epicenter—the public shamers have concentrated their efforts on park goers and maskless runners, who risk ridicule and even social media infamy for their behavior.


Public shaming’s role in the pandemic has been tirelessly covered and considered: It’s happening, it feels bad :(, and is perhaps even ethically wrong. The fact that people are doing it makes sense: It feels good to get mad. “We are frustrated, we are sitting at home, and we are angry but without any good place to direct our anger,” Gary Alan Fine, a sociology professor at Northwestern University, told VICE. “We can’t direct our anger at the virus, so we direct it at our neighbors, at the government, at those few people who are outside.” But, from a public health perspective, is the shaming at all effective? According to several sociologists who spoke to VICE, it… really depends.

Shame and ridicule can be extremely powerful tools of social control, especially when it comes to enforcing unofficial or informal norms, but the effectiveness is limited, Erich Goode, a sociologist whose work focuses on deviance and social control, told VICE. In other words, shaming isn’t unilaterally effective.

“Shame and ridicule are effective to the extent that you consider those who attempt to use it as part of your generic reference group,” Goode said. “ I am like them, they feel that my behavior is unacceptable and, to the extent that I value their opinion, their negative judgment about what I did is appropriate.”

To use a non-pandemic example, if a stranger on the sidewalk got pissed at you for texting while walking, it’s unlikely you’d permanently change your behavior (unless you already secretly agreed that texting while walking is bad). But if you later heard a friend or someone you look up to talking shit about people who text while walking, that would have a much greater influence on how you walk down the sidewalk in the future.


The big reason that yelling at people for going to a park on a weekend in May isn’t likely to change hearts and minds is that the pandemic shamers have no relationship with the person they are pissed at except that they are both people on Earth who are in the same place momentarily. Seeing a total stranger—especially one you have nothing perceivable in common with—share a picture of a crowded park on Twitter or Instagram, condemning anyone who went to a park, is not very likely to influence your behavior. What would be more effective would be if a friend or colleague—really just anyone the person has a social connection to—shared the same picture, or better yet, sent an individual message to any park-going friends, explaining why parks aren’t a great idea just yet.

But that leads to another problem that Goode brought up: “There is, as yet, no normative consensus as to what is acceptable behavior in any and all settings.” Shaming is only going to be effective to the extent that the person being chastised agrees with the rule being enforced, he said.

In the instance of park shaming, the risk of sitting outside in a park is still up for debate. Based on the developing science, outside transmission of this virus seems far more rare than inside, sustained contact transmission. But some risk still exists, and other associated risks of going to the park—crowding too close to other people, mixing households, and the potential contact during travel to the park—are areas of concern. We’ve been clearly told by experts for the past three months that staying home and within our own households is the best option. But because of the disastrous communications surrounding coronavirus, and the fact that it was politicized immediately upon arrival to the United States, people who feel fine going to the park can lean on the ambiguity as support for their choice.

Still, there’s something very human in the desire to scold… and in the desire to sit outside in a park on a sunny day. Goode explained that just as it’s natural to desire some level of social interaction, and cutting that off is a huge ask for a lot of people, it’s also natural for certain groups to vie for control in the midst of constantly changing norms. Right now, that power grab is between impassioned, all-caps posts on NextDoor and Twitter, and people looking for any way to justify the previously acceptable, mundane act of sitting in a public park with friends.


“At this point, the rules of how to conduct oneself during the pandemic are still evolving.

“I look at different interest groups and think about the struggle for dominance, hegemony, or the power to define what's right and wrong for all concerned—that is, for the society as a whole,” Goode said. “At this point, the rules of how to conduct oneself during the pandemic are still evolving. At such a stage, different categories of people vie for hegemony, for dominance, for the right to define what the norms should be that all others should follow, and which, if violated, will attract punishment to the violator.”

For the people sitting inside and following the rules to the best of their ability, it’s incredibly frustrating to watch others violate rules you, yourself, aren’t willing to break. It’s also scary. The desire to be cautious and follow stay at home orders to the letter isn’t just about being right or having power—it’s rooted in a belief in doing what is best for the community.

Pandemic scolds with those intentions—keeping themselves and their neighbors healthy, rather than simply creating rules because they enjoy the power trip of enforcing them—would be best served reaching out to their own social circles, families, and friends instead of shouting warnings into the void. And more to the point, sublimating the urge to police behavior by tweeting into the void about what “people in general” “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing, instead of confronting your own people, is the most pointless activity of all (that is, unless they follow you).

Goode gave the example of runners who’ve been on the receiving end of public ire for not wearing masks. A neighbor yelling at them out the window to put a mask on is probably not going to change their mind; the majority opinion in the running Facebook group they belong to, on the other hand, might. Simply put, people like to fit in; getting yelled at by strangers, on the other hand, rarely achieves anything more than a little bit of catharsis.

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.