“Is Shame Necessary?” Calls Consumer Activism and Humane Labeling Into Question



(Spoiler alert: shame is necessary)

Wow. Seriously, why does nobody in the animal rights movement talk about this book? It absolutely deserves to become part of the canon of Effective Animal Activism. In this post, I share my ten most important takeaways from the book, and then after that, I list my favorite quotes (sometimes paraphrased) from each chapter. But first, an introduction:

In “Is Shame Necessary?” NYU professor Jennifer Jacquet directly analyzes social change strategies in the context of animal advocacy.  When it came out last year, the book received glowing reviews from some of the world’s leading psychologists and sociologists, and yet I have never heard anyone mention it before. This is in spite of the fact that I spend hours every day talking to people specifically about social change strategy and animal advocacy. Clearly, I need to get out more.

Anyway, I just finished reading the book, and I’m very impressed. If I had to boil to the central message of the book into one sentence it would be this: Shaming institutions, not consumer activism, should be the centerpiece of social movements … and also, eco-labeling has failed. As one of the many animal advocates who is skeptical of the movement’s focus on veganism, personal consumer activism, and being “nice,” I found it extremely satisfying to see many of my views being argued for in an authoritative book by a serious academic at the world’s premier research institution. (Okay, that last bit might be a stretch, but…go Violets!)

(It’s not food, it’s violets)

Now, full disclosure: I’m on the legal team of Direct Action Everywhere, a grassroots animal advocacy network that is known primarily for using shame against institutions and individuals. So, I recommend that you take my reading of the book with several grains of organic free range sea salt. That being said, I will begrudgingly admit that the book also makes a great case for the investigations and corporate pressure campaigns done by DxE’s arch-rivals at Mercy for Animals, The Humane League, and HSUS. (Please don’t tell any of my DxE friends I said that). I also think that Professor Jacquet would have more than a few critiques of how DxE is using shame.

Finally, before I list the takeaways, I want to voice a few mild criticisms I have of the book, for those who might want to read it. First off, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of evidence cited in the section about creating new social norms, but as Jacquet notes, evidence in this field is especially thin. Second, the book is more oriented towards the environmental movement than the animal rights movement: she spends a lot of time talking about sustainable fishing and dolphin-safe tuna labels, and only briefly touches on cage free and fur campaigns. Third, she doesn’t quite distinguish between labels like “cage free”– which is seemingly concrete and less subject to manipulation — and “organic” — which strikes me as inherently amorphous and susceptible to misrepresentation. Finally,  I often felt unsure about how to implement a lot of the advice of the book, since it commonly took the form of general statements like “don’t shame too often or too severely.” I feel like I have a lot of important points like that to keep in mind, but I’m definitely left wondering things like, “how do we know if it’s too much?”

Anyway, those are my mild criticisms. I still highly recommend the book. But in case you can’t read the whole thing, here are my ten key takeaways, followed by my favorite quotes from the book:

  1. Consumer activism has become the primary tool of many social movements, to the great detriment of animals and the environment.
  2. Eco-labeling has been a major failure overall
  3. Buying green may not be a “good first step” due to moral licensing problems
  4. We should focus on organized efforts to change institutions, not individuals
  5. Shame can be a very effective tool for changing individual and institutional behavior
  6. We must utilize government regulation
    • And we must preserve victories through codification in law and policy
  7. Making shaming more acceptable to the crowd is key to effectiveness

    • although, many individuals considered norm entrepreneurs today, like Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela, were at first considered delinquents
  8. Shame is more powerful than guilt when it comes to establishing new norms
  9. No matter how it is implemented, shaming will not work if there is no audience and if it doesn’t get anyone’s attention
  10. There are many ways to maximize the benefits of shaming and minimize the drawbacks:
    1. Focus on powerful institutions, rather than individuals
    2. Frame your position in terms of the broad moral commitments/beliefs of the society you’re working in
    3. The transgressor should be part of the group doing the shaming
    4. Shaming should come from a respected source
    5. Don’t attack “the little guy,” punish too severely, or too often


My favorite quotes (sometimes paraphrased):

Ch. 1 Shame Explained

  • Until this push for certification [dolphin-safe tuna, Fairtrade, sustainable forestry etc.], the goal of shaming campaigns and boycotts had been to fundamentally change entire companies or industries. Activists like Cesar Chavez, behind the strike and boycott of table grape in the 1960s, would not have ended their efforts with a label on grapes that read, “Picked by farmworkers who earned a minimum wage.” The aim was not to satisfy the concerns of a few consumers, but to (among other things) change federal rules for the minimum wage and workplace safety for all farmworkers.
  • But by the 1980s, the notion of directly changing supply was being displaced by the idea of changing demand.
  • As the focus shifted from supply to demand, shame on the part of corporations began to be overshadowed by guilt on the part of consumers – as the vehicle for solving social and environmental problems.
  • With so many recent collective-action problems, especially those related to labor and the environment, we have been asked to engage with our guilt about these problems as consumers rather than as citizens or activists—not even as an organized group of consumers, which have been responsible for large-scale boycotts, but as individual, household purchasers who make decisions only as individuals.
  • It was not enough for people who disagreed with slavery not to own slaves themselves, they saw the need to stop everyone from owning slaves everywhere.
  • If we had not been pacified by the logos and certifications and enlightened supermarkets, we might have remained upset
  • Shame – exposing a transgressor to public disapproval
  • guilt has been asked to perform a function it is not quite up to—namely, solving large-scale cooperation problems
  • Shame can lead to increased stress and withdrawal from society …. But shame can also improve behavior. A study of U.S. adults found that half could recall at least one meeting with a doctor that left them feeling ashamed, most often for smoking or being overweight. Of those who reported feeling ashamed, nearly half then avoided or lied to their physician in subsequent meetings to evade any further shame, while the other half said they were grateful to the doctor, and about one-third of the patients said they even initiated improvements in their behavior.
  • In contrast to shame, which aims to hold individuals to the group standard, guilt’s role is to hold individuals to their own standards. For cultures that champion the individual, guilt is preferable to shame, because shame means worrying about the group.
  • Reputation is the asset that shaming attacks.
  • [When Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced they were ending their funding of Planned Parenthood, they were shamed into reinstating it. Researchers tracked Twitter traffic and found 253,465 messages related to the decision: 17 percent positive, 19 percent neutral, and 64 percent critical. Three days after the decision, the NYT and WaPo ran related stories , and the volume of messages on Twitter peaked. Most of the messages were negative. The foundation reversed its decision by the end of the day.]


  • One of honor’s shortcomings is precisely its optional nature—not everyone seeks it, while most of us seek to avoid the taint of shame


Ch. 3 The Limits to Guilt

  • Just as the devout purchased guilt-alleviating papal indulgences in the Middle Ages, guilt-ridden consumers today buy dolphin-safe tuna, compact florescent lightbulbs, hybrid cars, and Ethos Water.
  • Guilt-free products are also almost always more expensive, because, as the free-market logic goes, the costs are internalized rather than externalized to the environment. So just as the rich could buy their way out of penance, the rich can now presume to buy their way out of environmental destruction and its associated guilt.
  • The dolphin-safe logo of 1990, which eased the consciences of schoolchildren, including me, arose in the context of free-market ideology in which individual consumers, not government oversight over large-scale producers, were idealized as responsible for how things are produced. (In truth, regulation was key to decreasing dolphin deaths in tuna-fishing gears).
  • Lots of other ecolabels now exist, from “cage free” to “free range” to grass fed” to “all natural.” The framing for these labels is useful because they show us the default production practices like factory arming and synthetic additives.
  • Many of these labels are misleading both consumers and conservation funders and leading to undesired complacency.
  • The [Marine Stewardship Council] label is meant to distinguish seafood caught with good fishing practices from that caught with bad fishing practice …. Today the MSC logo is on more than 180 fisheries but has failed to demonstrate improvements on the water. In protest, environmental groups have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to formally object to MSC certifications, claiming the MSC’s principles are too lenient and allow for overly generous interpretation by the third parties that actually do the certification. When challenged, the MSC responded that [their requirement for “respect for laws”] is “different from compliance” and “does not require that a fishery management system be in perfect minute to minute compliance with every single piece of law that may govern a fishery.” The MSC has replaced its intention to protect ocean species with a word game.
  • The number of eco-labels continues to increase, even though no studies suggest that eco-certifying fish has led to more fish in the sea, or that certifying wood has increased forest cover. The organic food industry is worth $30 billion but represents only 4 percent of the food market. Froom 2000 to 2007, the United States did decrease its pesticide use by 8 percent, which sounds pretty good until you realize that this means a reduction from 1.2 billion pounds to 1.1 billion pounds. The labels alone are not getting us where we want to go.
  • Recent investigations suggest that the relatively successful “organic” label is also, at least in the United States, headed for trouble. Signs of regulatory capture are evident, with large companies like General Mills, Campbell Soup Company, and Whole Foods Market on the standards board, which attempted, in one case, to add a synthetic herbicide to the list of what can count as organic.
  • Walmart has been accused of peddling fake organic food on more than one occasion. In 2007, the retailer was exposed for using in-store signage to mislabel foods as organic at dozens of stores, and in 2011 for mislabeling conventional pork as organic in China.
  • Some evidence from work on moral licensing disagrees with this assumption that buying green is a good first step. A 2009 study showed that participants who were exposed to green products in a computer-simulated grocery store acted more generously in experiments that followed, but that participants who actually purchased green products over conventional ones then behaved more selfishly. A 2013 study confirmed suspicions about slacktivism when research showed that people who undertook token behaviors to present a positive image in front of others—things like signing a petition or wearing a bracelet of “liking” a cause—were less likely to engage with the cause in a meaningful way later than others who made token gestures that were private.
  • This research suggests that linking “green” to conspicuous consumption might be a distraction and lead to less engagement later on. If this is true, we should not be encouraged to engage with our guilt as disenfranchised consumers, capable of making a change only through our purchases, and instead encouraged to engage as citizens. Markets might even undermine norms for more serious environmental behavior. In some cases, as has been noted in Western Australia, eco-labeling fisheries may even be giving fishing interests leverage against establishing marine protected areas, where fishing would be prohibited or more heavily regulated, on the ground that protection is not needed if the fisheries in those area are already labeled eco-friendly. The market for green products might sedate our guilt without providing the larger, serious outcomes we really desire.
  • The main incentives for producers to do the right thing—like grow organic foods or fish in sustainable ways—is a higher price for their product. To get a price premium, those products have to be the exception and not the rule, which means the market could ease the consciences of a few consumers but avoids making any imposed, long-lasting changes to the industry.
  • In 1974, Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, two chemists at the University of California, Irvine related the use of CFCs to the depletion of the atmosphere….Destruction of the ozone layer did not slow because a handful (or even a majority of consumers who felt guilty about the growing ozone hole began buying products that were CFC free. The CFC ban was implemented regionally three years after the discovery, and then globally with the 1987 Montreal Protocol. “You cannot solve these problems with voluntary action, because most people will not volunteer,” Molina told me. “It has to become government policy.”
  • Another reason green guilt is so ineffective is simply that it’s felt over the wrong things. When a list of the top twenty-five steps you can take for the environment includes “use rechargeable batteries,” we should all pause.
  • In 2010, the chief executive of AutoNation, said “You have about 5 percent of the market that is green and committed to fuel efficiency, but the other 95 percent will give up an extra 5 mpg for a better cup holder.
  • Eco-markets did diddly-squat for average fuel standards in the United States, which was flatlined between 1989 and 2005. When the Obama administration signed legislation in 2012 that required automakers to make new cars and truck with almost double the efficiency by 2025, consumer demand had nothing to do with it.
  • Green consumerism was doomed to become a point of satire because it began to take itself too seriously. It began to look at itself as not only a solution but the solution.
  • [Guilt] can, in some ways, be a healthy response to many of our problems. But the flaw comes when guilt is misguided and we find relief in shopping rather than activism, or when guilt over collective problems is used to improve oneself rather than to strategically consider the collective whole.
  • A handful of guilty consumers buying this or that was not what motivated car companies to increase fuel standards or what motivated Walmart to give its employees health insurance. It was not what got women the right to vote. Guilt-ridden consumers were not what convinced companies to stop the production of ozone-producing chemicals.
  • Small changes made by big institutions can make a serious difference—whereas small changes made by individual consumers cannot. Chevron’s emissions in 2010 alone account for eleven times the emissions of all of the U.S. household lighting combined. Getting one single company to reduce its emissions by just 10 percent has a greater impact that getting every single American to agree to live in the dark.


Ch. 4 Bad Apples

  • In a laboratory setting that used cooperative games, the threat of social exclusion prevented bad apples from becoming contagious. In our own experiments, the threat of shame made people more cooperative, and they gave more money to the public pool. At the international level, adverse publicity has been used to coerce bad-apple countries into agreements.


Ch. 5 How Norms Become Normal

  • Studies show that the emphasizing the expectation of low voter turnout could lead to fewer people voting.
  • People tend to calibrate their actions to what they see or hear is common behavior. When visitors to a national forest read signs asking people not to steal petrified wood because a lot of people has stolen wood in the past, theft actually increased.
  • A boycott, for instance, can serve two purposes: it can ostracize a business in the market place, and it can also focus negative attention and act as a shaming technique. [Martin Luther King Jr.] explained that “nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realized that noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent.”
  • In a littered environment, people are more likely to litter themselves. That means that in some cases, showing the crowd the existing norm—such as how little other teens drink or how much energy neighboring households use—can lead to less overall drinking or energy use.
  • Shame is more powerful than guilt when it comes to establishing new norms. Whereas guilt relies upon an internalized norm, shame can be used strategically before the norm has been internalized, especially in the absence of formal sanctions or during the period before formal rules are instituted.
  • Community-led sanitation programs that started in rural Bangladesh in 2000 connected the practice of open defecation to shame. Many programs began with members of the community doing a transect walk, sometimes called the “walk of shame,” in which the group counted the number of human feces along the route. In some cases, the excrement was flagged with the name of the offender. In other communities, after education efforts to connect human feces to disease, leaders used flashlights on individuals who defecated in the open after dark.
  • The program also attempted to co-opt the existing disgust for using private latrines and redirect it toward open defecation. Changing the pathways for disgust can also be a major part of new norm formation.
  • Understanding the meta-norms of a culture, which can be used to anchor and promote new norms, is also important to changing norms. In Western cultures, meta-norms like harm and fairness, drive a lot of moral behavior, and norms that frame themselves in these contexts probably have a better chance at mobilizing the crowd.
  • Norm entrepreneurs- Research on recycling behavior showed that city blocks with a leader who informed neighbors about recycling pickup days recycled more than double the blocks without leaders. Norm entrepreneurs also are capable of using shame effectively because they have the trust and attention of the crowd.
  • Norm entrepreneurs need not be famous, but they should be respected. Both adults and children prefer to listen, watch, and learn from people with status earned from greater skills and success, expressions of confidence, and experience. Prestigious people also more strongly influence beliefs. In an experiment to test this, two groups of students were given a study that estimated the number of students who cheat. One group was told that a professor had conducted the study and the other group that a student had, although in both cases the estimates were the same. Each student then estimated the percentage of their friends who cheated, and students’ estimates were significantly higher and more closely matched to the estimates they had read if they had been in the professor condition. Prestigious people not only disproportionately affect beliefs through their higher social status but also because they often have a broader social reach.
  • Many individuals considered norm entrepreneurs today, like Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela, were at first considered delinquents…. The three servicemen who helped expose the atrocities of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam were initially ostracized by the U.S. military, which three decades later awarded them medals and invited them to speak to soldiers about ethics.
  • Norm entrepreneurs also don’t have to be individuals. Governments also lead in norm establishment and enforcement, as in the case of the separation of church and state, the one-child policy of Mao Zedong, or the $350 find for honking in Manhattan. Scandinavian countries might be weak military powers but they have been norm entrepreneurs in environmental politics, conflict resolution, and foreign aid policy.
  • Nonprofit groups successfully used shaming to convince the U.S. government to stop executing juvenile offenders.
  • Taxes can also be effective in changing behavior, as they have been in reducing smoking in many parts of the world and traffic, at least in places like Stockholm.
  • Introducing markets for specific behavior can sometimes undermine other motivations, which can undermine other human values. [In daycare centers that charged a fee for picking up kids late, the number of late pickups skyrocketed]. Even after experimenters removed the fine, the number of late-coming parents remained high. The market for being late shifted the social norm: the financial penalty was less burdensome than guilt or shame had been. Putting a price tag on behavior most people see as negative can sometimes exacerbate, not temper, a trend.
  • Harvard economist Roland Fryer set out to test whether paying underprivileged minorities could cultivate a new norm to study harder in school…. Fryer published the results of his work, which showed that financial incentives had little or no effect on academic performance—not for the reading, tests, or courses—and no effect on the students self-reported effort. Similar results have been reported in programs that pay health care practitioners for healthier patients and programs that pay teenagers not to become pregnant again.
  • Studies of CCTV, which has been introduced in many urban areas to deter crime, show that about half of the CCTV projects studied reduced crime, but not forever. In several cases, such as with the CCTV units in the London Underground, effectiveness was reduced or eliminated in just under a year.
  • Part of the success of the audience effect is that it serves as a warning that punishment could occur. If that punishment never comes, perhaps the audience effect loses its potency.


Ch. 6- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Shaming

  • Shaming is also used to set an example and establish a norm, even when there is no hope of changing the transgressor’s behavior, because it lets others know that such behavior will be punished. Part of our discomfort with shaming is that it is difficult to guarantee success, and shaming (like other punishments) can sometimes backfire.
  • Making shaming more acceptable to the crowd…is key to effectiveness, given that the crowd is asked to be part of the punishment.
  • The recipe for effective shaming begins with an obvious transgression against a norm, an obvious transgressor, and a desired and achievable outcome.
  • The transgression should (1) concern the audience, (2) deviate widely from desired behavior, and (3) not be expected to be formally punished. The transgressor should be (4) be part of the group doing the shaming. And the shaming should come from a respected source, (6) be directed where possible benefits are the highest, and (7) be implemented conscientiously
  • Health researchers argue that dirty looks and other forms of shaming have been key to reducing smoking rates—just as successful, in some cases, as taxes on tobacco.
  • It is also possible for the audience to feel indirectly harmed, which is part of the reason shaming is also used to stop whaling, land mine, recruiting of child soldiers, and deforestation. Europe’s strong reaction to the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the subsequent shaming of American military practices happened not because European citizens were direct victims of abuse. When transgressions enter a serious moral domain, they are also likely to attract an audience’s concern.
  • “The strength of organizations like Human Rights Watch is not their rhetorical voice but their shaming methodology—their ability to investigate misconduct and expose it to public opprobrium.
  • Researchers labeled some foods at a hospital kiosk “less healthy” and sales of healthier items increased by 6 percent.
  • It’s always more acceptable for a group to criticize itself from within than to be criticized from without.
  • For shaming to have traction, it should come from a source that the audience respects. A study that looked at Russian companies between 1992 and 2002 found that shaming a CEO of an underperforming company worked (meaning the CRO resigned or changed company policy) only if the exposure was in an American or British newspaper. Exposure in Russian newspapers seemed to have no effect, because, according to the study’s authors, those papers lack credibility.
  • Prestigious individuals are more trusted to punish, and less prestigious individuals are less trusted to punish.
  • Shamers seriously harm their efforts when it is revealed that they are partaking in the behavior they are shaming.
  • Too much punishing can make a punisher feared, not trusted, and lead to shaming have the opposite of its intended effect.
  • Given the finite amount of attention the audience has to give, and the problem of getting and maintaining that attention, shaming should be used sparingly, so as to maintain its power. Frivolous shaming can be a distraction from other transgressions that mean more, and a misuse of the audience’s attention.
  • To maximize effectiveness, it often can be better to focus on institutions, companies, or countries rather than individuals.
  • [Sometimes, shaming has effects for years, other times, shaming requires a long term investment]
  • No matter how it is implemented, shaming will not work if there is no audience and if it doesn’t get anyone’s attention.


Ch. 8 Shaming in the attention economy

  • Abstract forms of shaming are more acceptable as well as less expensive (ex. Unions using large inflatable rats instead of picketing and large protests)
  • We might have stricter moral standards for individuals as well as stricter rules about how we use shaming against them
  • The Marine Stewardship Council, the eco-label for fish uses third-party certifiers that nobody has ever heard of to do the actual certification, which means the MSC can divert the flak of bad decisions.
  • Lawsuits tend to only call more attention to bad publicity. One way to escape shaming is to simply wait it out, and this is standard corporate protocol for bad publicity. Time heals all wounds.
  • Boomerang effect- the tendency for people who had abstained from an undesirable behavior begin to partake because they come to incorrectly perceive that behavior as normal. One way to avoid this is to remind the audience of the norm, just as the California tax-delinquent website reminds people that “nearly 90 percent of taxpayers pay the taxes they owe.”
  • For those looking to actually quell the shaming, one option is to express gratitude or remorse.
  • Another way to make amends is by apologizing.
  • Shaming Gates for being a monopolist, shaming fisheries for killing dolphins, and shaming manufacturers for poor working conditions have all led to better behavior.


Ch. 10- The Sweet Spot of Shame

  • Sometimes, shaming is successful in establishing a norm, as it was with decreasing the wearing of fur more than a decade ago,, but without formal rules to follow up, the norm can relapse (as happened with fur)
  • Shaming institutions… is probably not just more effective….but probably more acceptable. [Groups don’t have “human dignity”]
  • Acceptable shaming tends to focus on the powerful over the marginalized
  • [Shame] loses its power as it is used more. This is one reason to eliminate, as best we can, the frivolous uses of shame.
  • We should also ensure effective shaming organizations by recognizing the need for those organizations to be independent from groups that might be their target. Revolving doors, board memberships, and charitable donations are all subtle ways of preventing shaming