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The Psychology of Shaming During COVID-19



Leaving a nasty post on someone's mask-less Instagram won't make you feel better — or make them change.


Back in April, I posted a photo on Instagram during a socially distanced run with a friend. Later that day, a stranger decided to drop a comment about how I shouldn't be running with anyone I didn't live with. 

As soon as I saw that comment, I felt my heart rate spike, and my temper rise. 

Who was this person, how did they know whether I lived with this person or not, and where did they get off judging me? (FWIW, I deleted the comment because I don't need to justify myself to strangers.) 

This kind of shaming and moral policing is rampant right now. There are viral photos and videos with rants about the lack of social distancing on beaches and complaints about mask-less employees or customers at certain stores. Back in March, New Yorkers would even yell out their windows at lockdown rule breakers. 

What's up with all the virtual and IRL finger-pointing? 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's hard to feel like you have control over...pretty much anything. Add in the confusing federal and state guidelines around face masks and social distancing, and people are seeking a way to police those things themselves. 

Shaming, then, serves as both an outlet for someone's frustrations and a way for them to try and exert some sort of control, says Ashwini Nadkarni, M.D., an associate psychiatrist at Brigham and Women's Health Care Center and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. 

"Writing an angry post on Instagram feels cathartic and like you're actually doingsomething when you feel out of control and helpless," adds Ariane Ling, Ph.D., a psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. 

It often feels safe, too, she says, because you're not risking any physical confrontation. The problem is, shaming someone doesn't actually work. 

"In our society, shaming is often adopted as a means for behavioral change, because it's thought to incite a level of motivation or desire for self-change, or be a way to push people toward a certain social norm," explains Nadkarni (ahem, wearing masks, staying six feet apart, or keeping group gatherings under a certain amount of people). 

In actuality, "you're really pushing people toward a biological response that is quite common in social anxiety, depression, or even post-traumatic stress disorder," she explains. Shame is a primal emotional experience that's associated with the limbic system, the part of your brain that influences the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, says Nadkarni. 

"When you activate that anatomical nervous system, you experience panic-like symptoms (such as a racing heart and shortness of breath) and certain behaviours that, from an evolutionary standpoint, are designed to stave off aggression (like a hunched posture)," she says. That makes shame a really tough emotion to tolerate, says Ling. "Shame is something that can really eat someone up, and so a very human response is to protect yourself from it by either avoiding it or defending yourself against it," she explains. 

As a result, someone who's being shamed is more likely to dig in their heels or embrace their own ideology more strongly. In fact, the part of someone's brain that controls logical thinking is literally less functional when its stress response is activated, according to research published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. 

"When someone's caught up in this fear response, it doesn't allow them to think about what they could change or do differently," says Nadkarni. 

That's the exact opposite response that you want and creates a missed opportunity for both of you. The person doing the shaming isn't immune to its effects, either. "The more you put that energy out there and the more it obviously isn't effective, the more you try to seek that control over and over again," says Ling. "Psychologically, that's quite harmful, because in trying to relieve yourself of that anxiety, you're creating more anxiety and you become wrapped up in this cycle." Stress and anxiety cause your body to release the hormone cortisol, says Ling, which can build up in your system due to prolonged exposure. And that long-term exposure can lead to a myriad of health issues, from the obvious increased risk of anxiety and depression to a weakened immune system and even heart disease. Plus, that sense of "control" you think you have is false, adds Nadkarni, which only "perpetuates this cycle of negativity." >Instead of digitally or personally chastising someone, it's better to approach them from a place of empathy or even curiosity, says Nadkarni. 

If someone's posting photos from a crowded pool party, for example, you might ask them what's up with the large gathering; that gives them a chance to question their own actions without fending off someone's judgment. If someone's wearing a mask wrong, instead of calling out their mistake in a nasty way ("Do you even know how to wear a mask?"), you can drive the point home in a way that's a little more playful ("Oh, hey, you missed your nose there!"); just try to keep your tone light and upbeat so your comment doesn't come off as passive-aggressive or judge-y.

And before you virtually shame someone, remember that social media is just a small, curated glimpse of their reality - you don't know what safety procedures they're following outside of that one snippet in time they decided to share with their followers, so maybe save yourself some grief and scroll right past.

"Shame is an emotion that drives people inward, which undermines the current goal of fomenting connectivity or shared responsibility," says Ling. Fostering that connectivity with a softer approach is one way of breaking the cycle of anxiety - on both ends. And it's more likely to lead to the result you really want: a safer situation for everyone.





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