Shame is a social emotion–I might feel guilty all by myself but I need someone watching to feel shame. And it is a horrible emotion–something dogs and toddlers alike don’t enjoy.
People may profess to be against shame and shaming, but it has become pandemic in this…pandemic. The next time you encounter the urge to shame someone or are shamed, consider the opinion of a Harvard epidemiologist–shame doesn’t work.


Julia Marcus is an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and a contributing writer for the Atlantic who has penned a brilliant series of essays about how to think about risk in the midst of this pandemic. Marcus’s starting point, which emerges from her previous work on HIV prevention, is that an all-or-nothing approach is blindly unrealistic: Everything is a trade-off.

Here is an interview with her in VOX.

Ezra Klein
Does social shaming and scolding work as a communication strategy around public health?

Julia Marcus
I generally try to stay away from absolutist responses, but my instinct is to flat-out say no: Scolding and shaming are toxic to public health. Almost full stop, with very few exceptions.

I think it’s a natural instinct to want to shame somebody for several reasons. One is we’re watching people do what we perceive as risky, and it’s not just putting themselves at risk — we’re watching them potentially put others at risk. There’s a lot of frustration and anger that comes up in that situation. But from a public health perspective, trying to shame somebody into changing their behavior just doesn’t work. It doesn’t deter the behavior generally. For some individuals, it might, but on a general population level, what it will do is actually just deter disclosure of the behavior. So if we think about what shame is doing, it’s essentially saying you’re a bad person for doing this.

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About Miriam Sagan

I'm blogging about poetry, land art, haiku, women artists, road trips, and Baba Yaga at Miriam's Well ( The well is ALWAYS looking to publish poetry on our themes, sudden fiction, and guest bloggers and musers.

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