This ancient social emotion has always been complex. The internet poured fuel on it. Then came social media. Timothy Meinch, Discover magazine. February 2021.
When Monica Lewinsky emerged in 2014 after a decade of quiet existence, she had a message to share. She also had a master’s degree in social psychology, earned in London where she hunkered down for grad school. Vanity Fair printed her exclusive comeback story in 2014. Then she took the stage to tell of life after becoming “that woman” in one of history’s most widely broadcast sex scandals: “I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one, worldwide,” Lewinsky says in her 2015 TED Talk, which now has monskyre than 18 million views. “I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on the global scale, almost instantaneously.”
The infamous 1998 incident with President Bill Clinton occurred at the dawn of the internet age — a fact not lost on Lewinsky, who says her name has appeared in “almost 40 rap songs.” Her actions as a 24-year-old intern went viral pre-social media. In recent years, the rise of Facebook and Twitter, and the potential for public shaming on the internet, motivated Lewinsky to speak up. “A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity, and shame is an industry,” she says in the video.
One can only speculate whether Lewinsky would have been met with criticism or empathy on today’s digital stage. In some cases, this internet-based outrage culture results in positive change. It has exposed grave offenses, elevated political movements and toppled abusers in the U.S. and beyond. Hollywood giant Harvey Weinstein, for example, was ousted, charged and imprisoned on the heels of the widely broadcast #MeToo campaign.
For better or worse, the internet and social media have significantly amplified humanity’s means of public shaming, taking victims from the town square to a global network of connected screens. “The internet now allows hundreds or thousands of people to participate in collective shaming, in a way that wasn’t possible before,” says Takuya Sawaoka, a social psychologist and research director at OpenMind, a psychology-based educational platform. The result is a steady flow of new names and targets — both high-profile and everyday citizens — flooding our media feeds and rage cycle. Some call it cancel culture; others embrace it as a social reckoning. Whatever you call this new wave of public shaming, researchers are evaluating whether the ancient emotion is benefiting or harming humans today — and to what extent. The results may hold some keys to our collective future.
The Roots of Humiliation
Long before the internet, people who violated moral codes in a society would get fastened to a pillar, stocks or pillory, a device in which the offender’s head and hands were locked in a wooden frame. The masses would gather to taunt and jeer them, hurling rotten food at their heads along with insulting words. This dual punishment and spectacle — aptly named pillorying — started more than 1,000 years ago in parts of Europe. And it lasted well into the 19th century, when, you could say, it got canceled.
“It’s worth noting that this practice was eventually outlawed because it became regarded to be too cruel,” Sawaoka says. England fully abolished the pillory by 1837, along with many nearby countries and most U.S. territories by that time. The state of Delaware was a last holdout in the Western world, outlawing it as recently as 1905.
Whether or not it involves a literal pillory, shame has generally run parallel with human civilization and social order through the ages. Some anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists make the case that shame is universal and biological, as an evolved mechanism to ensure our survival.
The idea is that adaptations favoring group cooperation and mutual aid stretch as far back as early human foragers, according to a 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers suggested that feelings of shame in an individual are nature’s way of “encoding the social cost” of certain behaviors — such as stealing. The study tested this idea in 15 remote, independent communities around the world and found the same patterns in each.
Considering how societies are built on norms and hierarchy, a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience framed shame as “an evolved disease avoidance architecture” wherein the emotion helps to protect individuals from undesirable social circumstances, such as being an outsider to a group. The study presented some evidence that shame may be linked to disgust — in this case, disgust directed at the self as a source of contamination for the group.
While experts continue to probe the origins of shame, many contemporary psychologists classify it as a selfconscious, moral emotion associated with feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness and other psychological turmoil in the individual. “Maybe it’s this thing that came from group-level processes and certainly had its benefit. But it really can wreak havoc on the individual level and make things worse,” says Michael Slepian, a social psychologist at Columbia University.