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The Things We Do: Shame is a Powerful Thing

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Billions of dollars are spent each year on sanitation, healthcare, and good governance, but the results vary quite a bit from place to place.  What separates successful programs from the unsuccessful?
Those that achieve their goals try to change behavior alongside introducing new methods or making investments. One way to change behavior is to use shame— an overwhelmingly negative emotion —to emotionally link individuals to the communities in which they live.
Shame and Sanitation

Shame was, in fact, a central ingredient to a program in Bangladesh that reduced the percentage of Bangladeshis defecating out in the open from 19% in 2000 to only 3% in 2012.

The program utilized the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) method, which “focuses on instigating a change in sanitation behaviour rather than constructing sanitation infrastructure.” Changes in sanitation behaviors are accomplished through a process of deliberation and discussion within communities to build consensus on the need to end open defecation and clarify the hazards that open defecation poses.

Among the tools that CLTS uses are the “shameful walk” in which communities collectively visit the places of open defecation to point them out and “feces mapping” in which communities prepare a map of the places defecation occurs in order to help people see the physical connections between feces and food, agriculture, and water sources.

Why was CLTS Successful?

Shaming people to change their behaviors is a very powerful approach to induce the kind of behavior change that program designers seek.  Shame is a negative emotion that people work hard to avoid!  One of the best ways to avoid it is to change our personal behavior.

According to Tangney, Stuewig, and Mashek (2011), through self-reflection, we may come to realize how our actions relate to social expectations. They argue, that “In effect, shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride function as an emotional moral barometer, providing immediate and salient feedback on our social and moral acceptability.”  What’s more, people can also anticipate their likely emotional reactions – or how much shame they might feel in the future— when they make decisions.

Shame, though, is also experienced collectively.   In one study by Lickel, Schmader, Curtis, Scarnier and Ames (2005), 187 undergraduate students were asked to remember events in which they felt ashamed or guilty due to the actions of a family member, friend, or someone of the same ethnicity that they do not know. The participants described the event, who did what, and how it made them feel. After each event, participants rated their emotions, motivations, appraisals, and association-related variables. Interestingly, events involving either family or friends were rated as having high levels of interdependence, high appraisals of control, and more intense feelings of guilt and desire to make amends. In contrast, events involving an someone from their ethnic group were rated as highly relevant to group identity but evoked a desire to distance oneself from it. The study suggests people feel ashamed for the actions of another when they also feel that the person’s behavior is relevant to a shared social identity and, by association, reflect poorly on their personal identity.

Both the “shameful walk” and “feces mapping” of the CLTS approach provide platforms for self-reflection AND create collective shame by linking open defecation to the entire community’s health and identity. Community members realize through the exercises how their defecation practices affect themselves as well as their neighbors.  Avoiding personal and collective shame is, therefore, achieved by adopting prosocial sanitation practices.

"You have to first recognize that it’s a behavior shift that’s needed before you put in the infrastructure,” stated Junaid Ahmad, Senior Director of Global Water Practice of the World Bank while attending World Water Week in Stockholm in August 2014.  

The Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP), administered by World Bank, has played an important role in enabling the approach to spread to India and, subsequently, to Indonesia and parts of Africa.
Photograph by Viengsompasong Inthavong via World Bank Photo Collection, available here
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Submitted by Cammi on

Whilst I understand how this may be useful in achieving fast behaviour change, advocating for the use of shame in a poverty-ridden situation is a very dangerous exercise indeed. The effects of shame go way beyond what is mentioned here. Behaviour change is hard, and for it to be permanent, it usually takes concerted ongoing effort. Whats more, isn't much of the aim of anti-poverty policies to restore the dignity of the poor. Policy-induced shame surely does the opposite. For a better understanding of the damage that shame can do the the psyche of individuals, check out the research coming out of Oxford University: and the books The Shame of Poverty: Global Perspectives (Robert Walker, 2014) and The Shame of It: Global Perspectives on Anti-Poverty Policies (Gubrium, Pellissery and Lodemel, 2014.

Submitted by Stephanie Livingstone on

While I agree with community mobilization for community change, I strongly believe that purposely conjuring feelings of shame to trigger behavioural changes is a very dangerous and potentially destructive path.

Self-reflection, community mobilization and changes in community practice can all be triggered in other ways which do not require conjuring feelings of shame. Research shows that shame can be not only psychologically but physically damaging, and actually significantly reduces participation, empowerment and productivity within communities rather than doing the opposite.

On a broader note, if you relate this to the field of positive psychology - the human brain is scientifically proven to be more productive at positive than when it is at negative, neutral or stressed. Instead of suppressing huge community capacity for positive change via 'shaming', it should be unleashed through more positive, constructive approaches.

Collective shaming can obviously effect community change, but the most important question to ask here is: what kind of change?

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