Health & Wellness

Could shame stop students from ignoring physical distancing guidelines?

Insight from two behavior psychologists about the effectiveness of online shame

Edging toward nine months of COVID-19 restrictions, some students are becoming restless with social distancing guidelines. The change in behavior gives rise to social media accounts with the intent of publicly denouncing those who break social distancing recommendations. The Instagram account @trojanspreaders began at the start of the Fall 2020 semester, featuring video and picture submissions of students seemingly breaking both University and L.A. County COVID-19 policies. After months of social distancing and rising cases, Annenberg Media takes a look at how effective shaming tactics are at influencing behavior.

When we walk out the door, go grocery shopping, and so on, the CDC has suggested strategies we should engage in to mitigate risk. While grocery shopping feels normal now, an underlying worry exists, even if the action feels safe on the surface. One may question the extent to which the strategies we’re employing are successful at protecting us from the virus. We invariably compare ourselves with others to see what those around us are doing and engage in comparison to see if we’re doing better than others. Research psychologist and social change strategist Dr. Beth Karlin suggests that “self-serving behavior and... pointing at another person’s behavior [is] reinforcing that what you’re doing is somehow better than or safer than their behavior, and it might make you feel safer,” which may motivate some people to use shame.

However, shame may not be an effective solution, according to Professor Mary Helen Immordino Yang. Yang reveals that social media is an ineffective way to influence or spark behavioral change at scale. Instead, we should be using pro-social and positive emotions to engage people. Even though negative emotions such as guilt, shame and anger attract attention, according to Dr. Karlin, “if you want to sustain behavior change over a long period of time, negative emotions like shame and guilt tend to backfire." No one likes being in a negative emotional state, so we are not likely to keep on listening to messages that shame us.

We’re navigating a new rulebook brought by COVID-19, with sanctions and lockdowns. Previously positive social behaviors, such as handshakes and hugs, have become negative social behaviors and also potentially dangerous. Karlin emphasizes the importance of individually and collectively figuring out “[how] to separate people and identity from actions and behaviors” because, she said, doing one wrong thing does not make us inherently bad.

“We’re associating actions with people, we’re sticking those actions onto people and making claims about who they are as a person, which is really unhealthy,” said Karlin.

Our identities are not defined by one action.

Karlin also said that it’s dangerous when we start associating mask-wearing with identity characteristics such as political affiliation and religion. Mask wearing should not be politicized and merged with concepts such as freedom. The best thing we can do is to focus on the action and disassociate it with identity.

Other than identity, we need to think of the impact our COVID-19 behaviors have on those around us. Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said that “students need to think about how [not social distancing] is changing the perception of people within our community of USC students,” especially because COVD-19 has highlighted the disparities in health equity.

Even though we are physically distanced from each other, reminding people and helping them find ways to still engage and feel part of a community is important, suggests Professor Immordino Yang.

Dr. Siegel said COVID-19 shows us what we can and cannot control, which does not differ significantly from normal life — we have always had choices. Not partying in a pandemic is a societal example of “where you can control and mitigate your own risk, but you can’t control everybody else,” said Siegel. And though tolerance to those who are engaging in poor COVID-19 behavior is challenging, we should focus on the aspects that we can control and stay safe.

“Everyone wants appreciation,” reminds Karlin. Instead of playing into cancel culture, phrases that reiterate socially positive behavior such as “thanks for wearing a mask” makes a difference in terms of impact.