Public humiliation as self-tracking motivation

I use a low-tech/high-sparkle method for motivating myself to exercise every day. It’s a small calendar hanging inside the bathroom cabinet door on which I post shiny kids’ stickers (the sparklier, the better) on each date that has included at least one hour of exercise.

I find that this self-tracking method is highly effective, particularly since I discovered individual little stickers with peel-off backings, not just the easy-peasey kind you lift off from a whole sheet of stickers. In the direct mail marketing business, my stickers would be called involvement devices (like tokens, peel-offs, stamps and tear-offs) that require a time commitment from potential customers. Marketers know that the more time we spend peeling, tearing or inserting these involvement devices, the more likely we’ll actually be to follow through to subscribe to their magazines or enter their sweepstakes contests.

But I digress. I love seeing an entire calendar page crammed with those shiny sparkles! Rewarding myself with a little sticker for my efforts is positive reinforcement.

Consider, however, these three self-tracking technology helpers that are designed to alter your behaviour not through rewarding you for your efforts, but through shame, humiliation and embarrassment when you screw up:

  • stickK – With this app, you can deposit money in advance into stickK’s escrow account, and for every week that you don’t meet your stated goal(s), a chunk of money is deducted from that account and donated to a charity you don’t want to support. Think NRA, or pro-choice, or whatever cause is the opposite of what you’d prefer to support.
  • Aherk! –  This “goal-oriented self-blackmailing service” gets your Facebook friends to vote (some might say squeal) on whether or not  you’ve reached your goal(s). If you haven’t, the site will post a compromising picture” to Facebook in order to punish you via  humiliation for failing.
  • Virtual Fridge Lock – This magnetic device attaches to the  refrigerator door, encouraging you to stick to your wellness goals by alerting your social network when you raid the refrigerator at night, then posting an embarrassing photograph to Facebook, and automatically donating to a disliked charity when you fail.

So after you’ve been busted by one of these self-blackmailing “services”, you can feel both shame and guilt. While shame has been described as essentially a failure to meet your own standards of behaviour, guilt is a failure to meet others’ standards – the “others” meaning your Facebook friends who will first be notified about your transgressions if you screw up, and then trash you online for them.

But does public shaming of the sinner actually help to change behaviour?

We no longer, as we did 400 years ago, display prisoners in the village stocks or pillories as punishment for gossiping, public displays of affection or arriving late to church services. But even in my lifetime (and in my classroom!), disruptive school children were often made to kneel facing the classroom corner or write endless lines of “I will not . . . “ on the black board, practices specifically designed to embarrass and humiliate.

Public shaming like this has long been thought to not only promote positive behavioral change but also to deter others from repeating the offense. Consider, for example, the publication last fall by Maine police officials of the names of male clients involved in the Zumba prostitution ring. Now there’s a deterrent . . .

Some studies suggest, however, that shame may actually be a detrimental response to problem behaviour, as it simply motivates hiding, escape and avoidance.

Here’s an example: when Vancouver researchers at the University of British Columbia investigated whether alcoholics’ feelings of shame about their addictions might actually interfere with their attempts to get sober, they found that the recovering alcoholics who were most ashamed about their last drink – typically a humiliating public experience – were much more likely to relapse. Their relapses were also more severe, involving much more drinking, and they were more likely to suffer other declines in health. (Tracy & Randles, Clinical Psychological Sciences)

According to psychologist Brené Brown, who has made the study of shame her life’s work, shame is not just feeling bad about something you have done or not done, but feeling bad about who or what you are – the “swampland of the soul”, as she calls it:

“Shame is easily understood as the fear of disconnection: is there something about me that if other people know it or see it, means I won’t be worthy of connection?

“Shame is feeling that I am not worthy of love, care and attention. Underpinning shame is excruciating vulnerability, the fear of being seen as we really are.

Canadian marketer Terry O’Reilly recently devoted an entire episode of his weekly CBC radio show, Under The Influence, to a topic he called Shame: The Secret Tool of Marketing.

He observed, for example, that personal hygiene products like deodorant or mouthwash did not even exist until 20th century marketers began using shame-based advertising to educate consumers how offensive things like body odour or bad breath are to other people:

“The anxiety a shame-based message creates increases the need to surrender to a solution.

“In the modern world, shame fuels the need to erase the humiliation.  When modern marketing first encouraged critical self-awareness, it stumbled upon what may be the most lucrative marketing strategy of all time.  Because in this day and age, it’s easy to see that satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones.”

If sparkly stickers on my bathroom calendar is an example of positive reinforcement, deciding to voluntarily subject yourself to embarrassing online ridicule if you don’t meet your stated goals might be considered negative reinforcement.

A report* published in The Annual Review of Psychology suggests that whenever we sin, transgress or err, aversive feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment are generally likely to follow. When we “do the right thing,” positive feelings of pride and self-approval are the likely results.

But actual behaviour is not even necessary for the press of these moral emotions to have effect. We  can almost always anticipate our likely emotional reactions (e.g., guilt versus pride/self-approval) as we consider behavioural alternatives. “I’m going to feel really horrible about myself afterwards if I finish off that entire cheesecake in the middle of the night!”

What the three self-blackmailing apps mentioned above seem to do by publicly broadcasting our failures via social media, however, goes beyond mere negative reinforcement.

Has it come to this? Do we really need the public shame of social media to stop us from that middle-of-the-night cheesecake?


Tangney et al. “Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior.” Annu Rev Psychol. 2007; 58: 345–372. doi: 10.1146annurev.psych.56.091103.070145

See also:


6 thoughts on “Public humiliation as self-tracking motivation

  1. Carolyn, if a little sticker could motivate me to do an hour of exercise – ok, a minute – I would be in the best shape of my LIFE. I am at a perfect weight now, cholesterol is good but exercising in the freezing cold? Not happening. Suggestions?

    • Hey Laura – never underestimate the power of a sparkly sticker! I prefer outdoor exercise at all times – usually walking or biking (if the day is really nice!) but when the weather’s too ugly, I take a number of drop-in fitness classes at our local rec centre (indoors!) or go to the gym (also indoors) or mall-walking, or in a pinch when I don’t even want to poke my nose outside, I just go up and down the stairs in my apartment building! Everything counts…

  2. “Think NRA, or pro-life, or whatever cause is the opposite of what you’d prefer to support.” So these are things are obvious examples of what people should not support? A bit judgmental here, aren’t we? Not ethical. At all. It would take more than a sparkly sticker on my bathroom calendar to change my perspective on things that REALLY matter.

    • Julia, please re-read this post. The entire point of the stickK or Virtual Fridge Lock self-tracking technology is to choose a charity (any charity) that the end user would not normally support. I could have listed well-loved charities like the Alzheimer’s Society or the Michael J. Fox Foundation – but these would hardly represent non-profits the general public might be polarized in supporting or not supporting. That’s the point.

      • I understand your point, really, I do. MY point is this: I would challenge you to replace the words, “pro-life” with “pro-choice”. Would you be able to do that?

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