What are the short-term and long-term consequences of public shaming as a discipline technique in terms of behavior, psychology, and/or the parent-child relationship? (One example.)

Per some feedback, I'd like to clarify:

  • I'm largely interested in relation to a tween or teen, because that's the age that I perceive as being when the level of rebellion and conflict is most likely to result in parents resorting to this instead of (or in addition to) other punishments. It seems like a different impact than (e.g.) publicly admonishing a preschooler in the grocery store for yelling and demanding candy.
  • I'm looking for answers that at least partly grounded in research or psychology, rather than single anecdotes or personal opinion.
  • This isn't just about holding a sign at the side of the highway, that's just an example. I'll look for some more to include.
  • This technique was invented in the last decade and is relatively rare, despite a few highly public examples. I'm not sure you'll be able to find the kind of evidence you're looking for. Nov 5, 2015 at 19:03
  • 1
    I think it may have been significantly enabled in the last decade (e.g. youtube videos, facebook posts) as well as become more visible because of the viral nature of it, but is it really that new?
    – Acire
    Nov 5, 2015 at 20:24
  • I'd never heard of it at least. Kids occasionally getting disciplined in public, or forced to publicly apologize for public offenses, yes, but nothing like this. Even now, I don't know anyone personally, only the viral cases. Interesting question, though. Nov 5, 2015 at 20:54
  • This question can span a lot, so I've opened a chat so that I can better understand the question and provide a proper answer. I hope that's within the guidelines! Nov 6, 2015 at 2:15
  • 2
    Opening chat is always within guidelines! Karl, while shaming online is new, we've been using public shaming since time before memory in one way or another - the stocks, scarlet letter, etc. While there are undoubtedly differences in how it affects children vs. adults, not only will some things still be consistent, I'm confident the same kind of shaming was done for children as well. The rich girl who bullied a poor girl who then has to wear Goodwill clothes for a month. That isn't new at all...
    – Joe
    Nov 6, 2015 at 16:37

1 Answer 1


In researching this question's answer, I found that much of the research stems around adult criminals, though it does relate to young adults.

To start, a 2010 Survey by a Republic polling firm1 found 3 areas of concern by the public:

  1. Protect Society (31%)
  2. Rehabilitation (25%)
  3. Punish Offenders (20%)

By all authorities I found (and logic itself), "Shame Punishment" must take into account the individual — Aaron S. Book2's "note" illustrates this, "Some criminals are better suited for shaming than others... [judges] should determine whether the offender can handle a sentence of shame."

One case cited by 2 describes the consequences of not accounting for the situation of the one punished:

The judge required that a photograph of the man appear in the county's local newspaper ...

The man had not told his mother, with whom he lived, of the conviction. By chance, she saw his picture in the newspaper and left her son a note on the kitchen table telling him of her shame that he was convicted of the crime. Distraught and embarrassed after reading the note, the man committed suicide.

This is not outside the purview of this discussion given that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young adults.

In recommending a balanced approach, 2 suggests, "As a condition of all shame punishment, judges should offer offenders an option of either receiving the traditional punishment of incarceration or a shame punishment."

It is said2 that "Virtually no empirical data exists detailing the effectiveness of shaming in deterring crime and reducing recidivism rates; however, ample data suggests that current forms of sentencing are ineffective in punishing and/or rehabilitating criminals."

In that line an Illinois court cautioned against using "unconventional conditions of supervision, which may have unknown consequences."2

Furthermore we are cautioned that using shame punishment from a "retributive standpoint because the public can see punishment at work, it is nonproductive."2

So given that there are some scenarios where shame punishment may be effective, the question naturally arises from this discussion, "Will it 1) Protect Society, 2) Rehabilitate (or, better said, stop the bad behavior), and/or 3) effectively punish?"

In answering this question, Valerie Wright, Ph.D., Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project3 notes some important considerations:

  1. The severity of punishment may influence behavior if potential offenders weigh the consequences of their actions and conclude that the risks of punishment are too severe.
  2. Enhancing the severity of punishment will have little impact on people who do not believe they will be apprehended [think "caught"] for their actions.
  3. Potential offenders must be aware of sanction risks and consequences before they commit an offense.

Additionally, she notes

The Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University was commissioned by the British Home Office to conduct a review of research on major studies of deterrence. Their 1999 report concluded that “…the studies reviewed do not provide a basis for inferring that increasing the severity of sentences generally is capable of enhancing deterrent effects.”

In addition, in reviewing macrolevel studies that examine offense rates of a specific population, the researchers found than an increased likelihood (certainty) of apprehension and punishment was associated with declining crime rates.

Furthermore, she cautions

Sanctions have the potential to erode the deterrent effects of a policy because as [Daniel Nagin] states, “[f]or an event to be stigmatizing it must be relatively uncommon.”

Counterbalancing these pro-shame-punishment researchers, Rachael Rettner of Live Science4 cites Andy Grogan-Kaylor of the University of Michigan, "Positive things have a much more powerful effect on shaping behavior than any punishment."

She4 also cites Katharine Kersey of Old Dominion University as cautioning, "Each time we [embarrass children with a punishment] we pay a price, and we drive them away from us, and we lose our ability to be a role model for them."

And, Kersey continues, "Children who are punished in these ways usually still commit the behavior, but do it behind their parents' backs."

Now, all that data taken as a whole, shame punishment may be effective in certain situations with certain young adults. It also stands a chance at lethal failure if the young adult cannot handle the additional repercussions inflicted by the punishment's public nature.

While feeling shame for our actions can have positive benefits in terms of our behavior, one must use extreme caution when employing borderline techniques — our love for our children must preclude discipline which is unhealthy for our children.

  • Wow, so much good food for thought! Great answer. Nov 7, 2015 at 20:41

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