Shame and Honour Shown to Increase Cooperation in New UBC Study

Image Courtesy of Bluerobot/Flickr.

This article first appeared in the Ubyssey on June 15, 2011. 

According to a new joint study by UBC and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, both shame and honour increase social cooperation.

Researchers discovered that, unlike their original hypothesis, the promise of shame and honour were equally effective in raising individual cooperation within a group setting, by as much as 50 per cent.

Using a ‘public goods games’ model with 180 undergraduate students at UBC, groups of 6 students were each given $12. There were 12 rounds of the game, and at each level, students were asked if they wanted to contribute $1 to a pool. At the end of the game, the pool would be doubled and split equally between all the participants. After each round, students were told who were the least and most generous.

“We had hypothesized that shame would be more effective than honour,” said Dr Jennifer Jacquet, the lead researcher on the project and a post doctoral fellow in the Mathematics Department and Fisheries Centre at UBC. “As it turns out, a large portion of the human population is not afraid to act shamelessly. Shame wasn’t more effective at the group level and some players were shameless [giving] zero dollars every round.”

With the advent of the Internet and social media, news travels worldwide at unprecedented speeds and easily damages the reputations of corporations and individuals alike.

“Social websites strongly influence honour and shame,” said Dr Arne Traulsen, a research group leader in evolutionary theory at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany, who partnered with Jacquet on the study. “Using social websites makes this kind of information available immediately everywhere. This fast dynamic is entirely new [because] in the old days gossip was needed.”

Both Jacquet and Traulsen agreed that their findings could impact how global issues are addressed on a worldwide scale. In fact, the tactic of public shame is already implemented by state governments to tackle tax evasion. But more interesting is the impact that the average consumer could have with shaming corporations.

“In New York City, in the restaurant windows there are hygiene cards,” said Jacquet. “[A business] gets a scorecard so consumers know what their score is. [Personally,] I veer away from ‘B’ rating. The social norm in my mind is an ‘A’.”

Shame experts are aware of the potential privacy issues that could arise from a public shaming system and that there is a fine balance between invasion of privacy and public information.

“We don’t want to promote the picture of a society in which everyone watches everyone,” said Traulsen.

Jacquet concurred but insists that shame will always be part of human society. “I think shame will always be a function but will it change our social norms,” she said. “Shame holds as its reference point social norms. Kids today are shameless but you still don’t see them doing lots of things. There are some things they do that their parents didn’t because the norm has changed.”

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