The meanings of shame: Implications for Legal Reform

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


This article describes and critiques the recent revival of interest in shame and shaming in various contexts, including criminal punishment. In particular, it addresses criminal sanctions that require defendants to wear signs in public, or to otherwise advertise their convictions. The article begins with the work of culture critics who claim that Americans have become shameless in ways that undermine important social and legal goals. The author takes issue with these critics and warns against legal reforms based on their provocative but potentially destructive call to shame. The author argues that the culture critics tend to conflate three terms: shame, shaming, and shameful and explains why separation of these terms is crucial to meaningful discussions about whether Americans have "lost" their sense of shame or should be shamed for violating social or legal norms. The author then develops the psychological and the anthropological meanings of shame, uses this backdrop to evaluate all three terms, and speculates about the likely individual and social consequences of official shaming techniques. The insight of these materials is that shame is a sophisticated, context-sensitive, and potentially highly destructive emotion. Only in certain cultural settings is official shaming likely to prove an effective or humane method of enforcing norm observation. Finally, the author applies these insights to the use of shaming penalties by courts in criminal cases and concludes that American criminal courts may be ill-equipped to exploit offender or audience shame vulnerabilities in a way that makes practical or moral sense.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)645-704
Number of pages60
JournalPsychology, Public Policy, and Law
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


Dive into the research topics of 'The meanings of shame: Implications for Legal Reform'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this