Don’t Be a Wimp a Cheater or a Pop Tart Eater: The Essential Role of Honor and Shame
Shame is usually seen as a bad thing in modern society. In fact, shaming someone is seen as one of the more shameful things you can do. But according to Duke University Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics, Dan Ariely, the threat of being identified in a shameful manner is an effective deterrent to destructive behavior. As he explains:
“In a series of three experiments, participants were given a chance to claim unearned money at the expense of the researchers. There were two conditions in each experiment, and the only difference between them was in the wording of the instructions. In the first condition participants were told that researchers were interested in ‘how common cheating is on college campuses,’ while in the second, they wondered ‘how common cheaters are on college campuses.’
This is a subtle but, as it turned out, significant difference. Participants in the ‘cheating’ condition claimed significantly more cash than those in the ‘cheater’ condition, who, similar to when we tempted people who had sworn on the bible, did not cheat at all. This was true in both face-to-face and online interactions, indicating that relative anonymity cannot displace the implications of self-identifying as a cheater. People may allow themselves to cheat sometimes, but not if it involves identifying themselves as Cheaters.”
In an environment where you will be labeled as a “cheater,” rather than simply acknowledged to have cheated, you are far less likely to engage in dishonest behavior, even when that behavior is anonymous. The idea that you are a “cheater”—that by engaging in a certain behavior you become a lower moral category of person—is embedded in each individual’s conscience. We refuse to become that shameful thing. How wonderful.
Academic cheating has exploded over the last few decades, particularly since the birth of the smartphone. A teacher who I respect told me that last year she had a conversation about cheating with her favorite senior class. She was aghast to hear them defend widespread cheating. To the class’s universal support one student said, “What else are you supposed to do when you don’t know the answer?” It is a shame these students weren’t concerned about being labeled cheaters. They might have learned far more, developed a great capacity for persistence, and perhaps even invested enough to develop an academic interest. Unfortunately for them, they never felt shame for cheating.
In another landmark study, economists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter had people play a game where they were put in a position to care about the common good. Each person was given a set amount of tokens to start. Each round they could put tokens into a “commons” that would be doubled and then divided amongst all players at the end of each round. For example, if five players put $2 into the commons that $10 pot would turn into $20. That $20 would then be divided equally and all five participants would double their money, receiving $4 back at the end of the round. But, like many free-rider issues today, if one person put $10 in and the rest put in $0, the outcome would also be that everyone got $4 at the end of the round.
At first, Fehr and Gachter made these “commons” deposits anonymous. People would start out reasonably generous. But as they noticed that other people weren’t doing their share, they’d give little to none. So, in the seventh round, Fehr and Gachter introduced a new rule: you can spend your own tokens to punish other people. Cooperation improved immediately and continued to improve thereafter.
Two implications stand out. First, people are willing to take a personal loss in order to punish others and ensure “fairness.” We are willing to sacrifice for what we deem right (or in order to feel the pleasure of revenge). Second, just the possibility of punishment radically improved group cooperation. The threat of punishment was essential to social cohesion. And social cohesion is perhaps the most important component for producing fulfilled individuals. As the psychologist, Jonathan Haidt writes in the Happiness Hypothesis, “When community standards are enforced, there is constraint and cooperation. When everyone minds his or her own business, there is freedom and anomie.”
In the 1960s, on the heels of the counterculture movement, American schools began a conscious effort to stop inculcating values in students and to, instead, help students discover their own values. Teaching traditional virtues became synonymous with intolerance, squareness, and even bigotry. After all, Jim Crow laws and unequal gender norms had been perpetuated by close-minded traditionalists. So the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme and judgmental behavior became the chief public sin.
This coincided with an expansion of television entertainment and a burgeoning new consumerist ethos. People began to define themselves by brand preferences and their favorite entertainments, rather than by their character and capabilities. Instead of speaking of a person’s character (a moral term), we’d reference her personality (an amoral term). As a culture, we no longer shared a common dedication to “live a good life” or a common understanding of each person’s responsibility to their community. Lacking these higher ideals, mainstream society became progressively more obsessed with entertainment, convenience, and immediate gratification.
The counterculture movement helped discredit and eliminate many truly bigoted norms. But that progress did not require that we discredit all traditional values. Rather, we needed a broader conversation about what virtue really looks like and what values we, as a nation, should rally around. Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. understood the importance of tradition and a shared moral framework. This is why, rather than put the founders on trial, he framed the pursuit of equal rights as a mission to fulfill their founding promise. But this was not the typical approach. A new ethos of value neutrality took root in mainstream society. In an effort to prevent anyone from ever feeling excluded, “triggered,” or “shamed,” we made it taboo to critique anything except judgmental behavior—“Who am I to judge?” This opened the door for standards to erode and social norms to be dictated by the whims of brilliant marketers. There was nothing to stop us from TV dinners, constant social media scrolling, and Pop-Tart breakfasts.
We now tend to see shame as cruel. But, when moderated by maturity and focused towards desirable ends, shame may be the nicest thing there is. The typical approach to behavior change today is to focus all our energy on helping individuals clarify goals and then to create the structures necessary to pursue those goals. We want to look better for our beach trip or to start meditating because we know it will improve our mental health. But such goals are less meaningful because they are isolated from a broader community. Looking good in a bathing suit can only motivate you for so long. You’d be far more successful if your fitness was rooted in community—if you were competing amongst gym friends or you simply lived in a society where neglecting your health was shameful. Even more, when social shame is absent, most disciplined pursuits must be accomplished against the tide of the culture that created them. Our norms permit our impulsiveness which in turn creates new, lesser norms.
Throughout history shame and honor have reliably helped motivate momentous feats of will, most obviously, marching into combat. This is why the best way to adopt a new behavior is to go somewhere where that behavior is already the norm. The best way to become healthy is to join a close-knit gym or to move to a community that values health. The best way to get your kids to study more is to put them in AP classes or to move to a school where studying is normal. The best way to stop scrolling your phone all day is to surround yourself with people who find that sort of behavior a bit shameful.
I’ll never forget a conversation with my old high-school football coach. He was telling me about his new fitness regiment and he let slip part of his mental formula for success: “99% is a wimp.” What he meant was that he was not going to miss any of his planned workouts and, to ensure this, he was giving himself no wiggle room. Anything less than perfect compliance would be a demonstration to himself that he was a wimp. This phrase comes back to me every time I commit to a hard task. My coach laid down a gauntlet—a way of being—that has helped stir me to greater depths of persistence. Every great culture has heuristics like this, which point the way towards better behavior and away from worse.
As Daniel Coyle writes in The Culture Code, “High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal. They provide the two simple locators that every navigation process requires: Here is where we are and Here is where we want to go.” Coyle lists many, but here are my favorites:
The New Zealand All-Blacks
If you’re not growing anywhere, you’re not going anywhere
Keep a “blue head” instead of a “red head”
Leaving the jersey in a better place
Danny Meyer’s Famous Restaurants
Collecting the dots and connecting the dots
Making the charitable assumption
Be aware of your emotional wake
The excellence reflex
KIPP Charter Schools
Don’t eat the marshmallow
Be the constant, not the variable
Read, baby, read
Similarly, in one of my favorite quotes from 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson outlines a few of the behavioral directives that blue-collar work crews hold each other to:
“Do your work. Pull your weight. Stay awake and pay attention. Don’t whine or be touchy. Stand up for your friends. Don’t suck up and don’t snitch. Don’t be a slave to stupid rules.… Don’t be dependent. At all. Ever. Period.
I’ll add a few more that are worth adopting:
Don’t be a cheater
Don’t be a litterer
Don’t scroll your phone at the dinner table
Eat like an adult (courtesy of Dan John)
There are more powerful temptations and environmental pitfalls to circumvent our goals than ever before. In every moment we have many comfortable, pleasurable options, but the more fulfilling path almost always requires some uncomfortable discipline. Shame and honor are the most powerful forces available to propel people towards better behavior and a greater depth of connection. It would be a shame not to utilize them.