Home > Uncategorized > Shame Versus the Free Market

Shame Versus the Free Market

June 8, 2019

One of the ways I want to understand the power and dynamics of shame as a social mechanism is by comparing and contrasting how shame works with the other forces that play similar roles but that we are much more aware of. Today I’ll start thinking about that with respect to market forces, and more generally the viewpoint of the individual as an economic free agent (hat tip to Josh Snodgrass for this prompt).

Shame is often inconsistent with rational free agency.

The first thing to note is that shame is not rational at the individual level. That is, when we are acting under the power of shame, we often act in direct conflict with our immediate “economic best interest.” Here are some examples:

  • If we’re shamed into being a good daughter or son in some way, we’re probably spending more time than we’d theoretically like helping out or spending time with our family.
  • If we’re shamed into being a “good mom,” that might translate into baking cookies for a bake sale that we know is ridiculous.
  • If we’re feeling spurned from normal society for being weird, it’s often an enormous amount of effort to either pretend to be normal or to accept the role of the social outcast.
  • Even if we’re the target of punching up shame, where we’re the the CEO of a chemical company that’s polluting the river, the point of the shame is to get us to stop it not because it’s in our interest to stop it – it clearly is in our interest to continue to do it – but because it’s against a larger public interest.

Indeed, shame often works really well to get individuals to act against their self interest in relatively small ways so that the group as a whole works more smoothly and is better off, at least ideally. The idea is, if the norms are reasonable and achievable, then people are shamed into following them for the sake of society.

When norms are unreasonable or unachievable, things can go wrong, and the free market ideology we have been indoctrinated with can make things worse.

So, when young men are informed that, in order to achieve social success they have to demonstrate sexual prowess, this is a huge burden on lots of shy, awkward, inexperienced youths. They feel an enormous amount of pressure to conform to this concept of “success,” and an enormous amount of shame when they continue to fail in this way.

My theory is that, in part because of our weirdly religious belief in free markets, coupled with the explicitly market-flavored nature of dating apps and other technological intermediations on the sex and dating fronts, we end up with bizarre pseudo-scientific theories of attractions and attractiveness that purport to “explain” everything about sex and dating but are fundamentally efforts to blunt the power of shame.

I’m thinking in general of the “PUA” culture, where women are scored from 1 to 10 and men learn strategies to land them in bed that have nothing to do with human connections. The flip side of that bizarre artificial market structure is that, at the extreme end, we have incels undergoing drastic plastic surgeries in order to look like sexually successful men which they refer to as “Chads.”

Of course we’ve seen women go under the knife for decades, and it’s become somewhat normalized, even though it’s of course due to the same thing: pressure to conform to some norm, and shame that one’s body isn’t a perfect 10.

Shame and Scoring Systems

Speaking of being a perfect 10, I think the easiest way to access how shame works vis-à-vis free markets is to think about how easily scores and scoring systems evoke in people a deep sense of shame.

Whether it’s an SAT score, a GPA, the ranking of the college you went to or your kid got into, your weight, your BMI, your IQ, or your Twitter followers, people have gotten used to – and to a large extent embraced – the concept of being measured by externally defined, maintained, and verified scoring systems. They have profound effects on society, at least to the extent they people care about them.

And, for me at least, that’s the weirdest part. People really do care about rankings and scores, far beyond what I’d consider reasonable.

I think I see the unreasonableness in such systems in large part because I often understand the flaws in the systems, and I’ve worked out the exceptional people who are measured as unexceptional, or the unexceptional people who look amazing to a scoring system. It’s not so easy to think through this kind of thing, and when you do, you lose admiration for the system itself, which on the one hand helps you distance yourself from your score and any associated shame you might have for a “bad score,” and on the other hand allows you to see just how much blind faith and undue grief we as a society project onto such systems.

Push and Pull

Stepping back, I think I’m ready to say that there’s been a massive and largely undescribed conflict between the two systems of powers represented by the informal social mechanism of shame and more formal market mechanisms. They are not consistent with each other, and as individuals and groups, we’re being pushed one way by shame and another way altogether by market incentives.

On the other hand, the proliferation of “markets,” whether represented by dating apps or college rankings, have given us new ways of determining our intrinsic worth, which is what shame is all about. And to the extent that we have embraced these systems, which I think is far reaching, we’ve got a whole new set of things to be ashamed of. You could almost say that we’ve come to replace some of our old-fashioned notion of self-worth as family members, as citizens, and definitely as consumers by the scores that we’ve achieved. In that sense we’ve externalized and even privatized the dominant shaming mechanisms.

How could we possibly keep up with all of these ways of evaluating ourselves and being evaluated?

How Technology Comes Into Shame

Next time I’ll talk further about the reason I’m writing this book now. It has to do with the way technology is intermediating shame mechanisms: how it works, how it’s been changing us, and how I believe it’s going wrong.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Josh
    June 8, 2019 at 9:35 am

    Good thoughts.

    Actually, I had something else in mind when I brought up free markets and shame. Shame is a way of reinforcing social norms and I was thinking of free market ideology as a destructive social norm. That we lionize Bill Gates and shame the poor.


  2. Josh
    June 8, 2019 at 9:40 am

    Good thoughts.

    Actually, I had something else in mind when I brought up free markets and shame. Shame is a way of reinforcing social norms and I was thinking of free market ideology as a destructive social norm. That we revere billionaires and shame the poor.


  3. June 8, 2019 at 11:22 am

    One of the best posts I’ve ever seen to show how social norms can override utility maximization. Bonus for recognizing the adverse outcomes that can result when the norm is not “correct”.


  4. angie tarbet
    June 8, 2019 at 5:26 pm

    Thoughtful. Shame rules lives, equally male and female. Common ground. Valuable. Thank you, please keep going, I get some much from your ideas.

    Sent from my iPhone



  5. Brian
    June 10, 2019 at 6:43 am

    You may want to think about shame in the context of collective goods.

    When I think about shame, I think about the force it plays in Japan. The norms espoused and promoted protect the societal vision of collective success, minimize waste and variance.


  6. June 11, 2019 at 8:45 am

    In case you hadn’t seen it, here is a recent attempt to leverage shame to change customer behavior wrt re-usable bags at a Vancouver market: https://www.vancouverisawesome.com/2019/06/04/embarrassing-plastic-bags-vancouver-market/


  7. Kev
    June 13, 2019 at 8:00 pm

    (That is, when we are acting under the power of shame, we often act in direct conflict with our immediate “economic best interest.”)

    This immediately reminded me of a story (behavioral economist) Richard Thaler explains in his book “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics”. In it, he talks about how when he was teaching he wanted to differentiate those who had mastered the course , medium level and the weakest. He designed this test which he included a couple of significantly harder problems with a total of 100 maximum points scorable. The average in the class was 72/100 which translated to a B because the school graded on a curve. Students were upset and complaining because of the low average , so he increased the max points to 137. This kept the class happy because the average was a 96 now although, they still only scored approx. 70% of the questions right. Lol

    I thought it was a great example of how scoring systems shame people into acting irrational and against their own “economic interest”.


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