Shaming Someone Doesn’t Change Their Mind

Alana Conner,

Release Date
February 1, 2017


Free Speech

So you want to fight prejudice and change people’s minds? Step 1: Don’t insult them. Step 2: Have a real conversation.

    1. Freedom of Speech: Is Offensive Speech Good For Society? – Learn Liberty (video): Professor Tom Bell argues that free speech allows us to argue against bad ideas. 
    2. How to Talk About Politics Without Sounding Like a Jerk (blog post): Professor Matt Zwolinski explains why political discussions are so difficult and often turn hostile. 
    3. This Professor Will Challenge Your Perspective on Free Speech – Learn Liberty (video): Professor Deirdre McCloskey argues that free speech is crucial because it allows us to persuade people. 
Alana Conner, a cultural scientist at Stanford, tells Vox that, “Telling people they’re racist, sexist, and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere.” Social psychology tells us persuasion happens one of two ways: centrally and peripherally. The central route to persuasion uses reasoned arguments, getting someone to think deeply about an issue. If they’re paying attention and they have something at stake, you just might persuade them. The peripheral route is less ideal. It skips reason and relies on superficial cues to do its job. For example, it might make appeals to popularity or authority.
But shaming someone, telling them they’re racist, sexist, or bigoted, falls into neither of these categories. It’s not providing them with a reasoned argument and it doesn’t appeal to them on an emotional level. In fact, shaming someone is more likely to get them to shut you out and form a negative impression of both you and your views, leaving you worse off than you were before. At best, shaming leaves bad ideas in the shadows where they can’t be challenged and where proponents of those bad ideas can’t be persuaded. Good ideas become tenuous. If you hold an idea only out of shame, then you likely never went through the process of understanding why it’s a good idea, leaving you less able to defend it.
Fortunately, there are persuasive ways to reduce prejudiced attitudes. Simply interacting with others, getting people to reflect on why they hold certain views, and asking them to take on new perspectives all appear to be effective ways of undoing prejudices.
But when shame is the method, none of that can happen. This shouldn’t be surprising. Calling someone a bigot is little more than an insult. It may feel gratifying and it may even be true, but if we want outcomes we should bear in mind that persuasion just doesn’t happen that way. Shaming may be successful at shutting people up. Changing their minds, that’s a different task entirely.