Cathy O’Neil is the author of the bestselling Weapons of Math Destruction, which won the Euler Book Prize and was longlisted for the National Book Award. She received her PhD in mathematics from Harvard and has worked in finance, tech, and academia. She launched the Lede Program for data journalism at Columbia University and recently founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company. O’Neil is also a regular contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.
Below, Cathy shares 5 key insights from her new book, The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation. Listen to the audio version—read by Cathy herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Shame is an existential threat to our sense of self, and for that reason, it can be weaponized.
Shame happens very quickly. It’s an important prosocial mechanism that in the olden days would have prevented us from breaking important rules, like hoarding food in a famine. It is essentially what happens when our community needs us to follow a rule in spite of us wanting to do something else. We want to hoard food because selfishly, that will be good for us—but the community needs us not to, so the shame is essentially a threat to our existence inside the community. If we don’t follow the rules of the community, we could be expelled from it. So it makes sense for our shame reaction to be quick, because that is a threat to our survival. If we are expelled from the community, we could die of exposure.
More generally, shame makes us feel unlovable and unworthy—unworthy of other people’s love and of the community’s love, which again makes sense. Our first community is our family, so many of our first memories of shame come from being shamed by our parents.
Shame is something that is a triggering reaction. We are triggered by shame, especially if we’ve been shamed about something for a long time—that becomes a chronic shame topic for us. What that means is that other entities, institutions, and people can use that trigger reaction against us as a weapon, and that has happened. That’s how I started researching this book: seeing and researching teachers who were being fired based on an algorithm that no one could explain to them. And when they asked any questions, they were told, “It’s math—you wouldn’t understand it.” Typically, people don’t think of themselves as “math people,” so that’s a kind of math shame. Not only was it systemic, but it also worked really well.
Shame is very powerful and very quick, and it confuses us. It makes us cede our rights, as I saw happen with the teachers. It makes us want to get out of a situation as quickly as possible.
2. Shame is a profit center.
Shame is a tactic, a mechanism by which companies can profit. And not just necessarily profit with money, but also profit with power.
Most of the classic cosmetics industry was a kind of ageism shame: “You look old! You should cover up your wrinkles. Here’s a product that won’t actually work, but will make you feel like it might, so we’ll profit from your shame.” That’s not to say that every single person who buys cosmetics products is ashamed of their wrinkles, but that is the dynamic they’re playing on.
“They claim not to be creating shame around it when they, in fact, are creating shame around it, and then they’re selling a product that purports to improve the girls’ situation.”
Sometimes it’s obvious when companies are playing on shame, because they create the shame first and then play on it. One example is for teenage girls—it’s called OMV! Like, “Oh my vagina!” It’s a product that Vagisil created to make teenage girls feel ashamed of the smell of their period. And in the advertisement, it actually says, “Periods should not be stigmatized.” They claim not to be creating shame around it when they, in fact, are creating shame around it, and then they’re selling a product that purports to improve the girls’ situation.
There is no real problem here—it’s a created problem, a manufactured problem, a manufactured shame created to generate profit. And if teenagers buy this product, I can easily imagine them getting yeast infections—then Vagisil has another product to sell them, to cure the yeast infection.
Another example of a profiteering shame comes from diet industries that constantly give a failed product to dieters, then blame them for the failed diet and expect them to be repeat customers. I keep thinking about what it would look like if you broke your leg, you were given something that didn’t actually make your leg heal, and then you were told that you were the problem instead of the product. This just would not work without the context of shame. The fat-shaming is a critical element of the weight-loss industry, for places like Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, where they know that their diets fail—and in fact, they depend on their diets failing for repeat customers.
Then there’s Prevagen, which purports to help people with memory. But there’s no reason to think it works. They have pseudoscience—which I debunk in my book—that claims it helps people feel sharp and stay sharp. But it plays on this notion that older people are bad at remembering things; it shames them for that, and it tells them to buy something in order to deal with it. Once again, It’s a failed product, but because people are so ashamed of themselves just for being older, it works as a profiteering goal.
Now, I don’t want to claim that all products are shame-based, and some people buy these things without an intense amount of shame. But I do think that shame plays a huge part of it, and I think it’s intentionally brought out by these marketers.
I also want to point out that shame is a weaponized tactic, not just in terms of profiting, but also in terms of power. Think of priests abusing little children and then shaming them so that they won’t speak up against the Catholic Church. There are tons of examples of that. It’s the oldest mechanism in the book, in fact, for silencing people without power. So shame is not only a profit center for money, but also for power.
“Shame is a weaponized tactic, not just in terms of profiting, but also in terms of power.”
3. Social media are the new shame machines.
I would argue that the diet industry is a shame machine, the cosmetics industry is a shame machine—I’ve mentioned a few. But I also want to claim that social media are new shame machines. They’re new in the following sense: whereas the old ones I described shame you directly in order to make you buy a product, social media does not. It doesn’t directly shame you—rather, it creates the perfect platform so that you shame each other.
Part of the reason this works is because we feel comfortable. We’re surrounded by friends on social media, people who think much more like us than you would find in an average town—people who are very homogeneous. The algorithms on social media surface to you and your friends the most outrageous content from other groups, you are outraged, and you try to lob a “shame grenade” over into the other circle, to shame them for their terrible behavior. And we actually enjoy shaming other people—there’s pleasure-center stimulation in the brain when we shame other people, so we’re conditioned to do it.
But most of that shame is useless—in fact, it can backfire. Most of that shaming that we enjoy on social media isn’t actually helping anybody; it just makes us feel good. In fact, if we shame people based on rules that they don’t agree with, guess what? They double down on their disagreement. So by shaming them, we’re actually making things worse.
4. Shame can be appropriate, but still not work.
The previous example was shame being inappropriate; it just doesn’t work to shame somebody you don’t really know and won’t keep track of. I have rules for what’s appropriate, but the short version is that they have a choice and they have a voice: a choice in the sense that they did something wrong that they could choose to do right—unlike things like being fat or being old—and then they have a voice, which is to say they have a way to defend themselves, a way to be seen improving, and a way to be redeemed. The voice is just not there in social media almost ever. So it is inappropriate to shame people on social media that you’ll never see again.
But even when you have a voice and a choice, even when you’re shaming somebody with a voice and a choice, it’s probably not going to work. The number one reason why is that they might not agree with the norm—but even if they do agree, it still might not work. Imagine that I’m driving down the street with my seven-year-old in the back who’s not buckled into their car seat, and somebody comes by and accuses me of being a terrible mom, then drives away. Even though I agree with the norm, I will still be really offended. We need something more than just theoretical agreement with the norm, a voice, and a choice; we need a sense of trust.
“Even when you’re shaming somebody with a voice and a choice, it’s probably not going to work.”
And when you’re asking for all of that, it’s pretty hard. Shame doesn’t work at all moments—it’s actually pretty tricky. It looks at moments like persuasion rather than shame. It looks like persuasion toward a common, shared goal and norm. I think the best example I know of recently is Zelenskyy shaming other Western leaders into helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia. It’s not an explicit shame, although sometimes it does look like that. Most of the time he’s saying, “Hey, you and I, we all here in this room, believe in democracy—and therefore, you must help me.” That’s a soft shame that works.
5. What it means to transcend shame.
I don’t think we should expect to transcend shame. I have a notion of stages of shame, but it’s not a way of expecting us to get over it or get rid of shame. I do think, however, that we can understand our shame, that we can reckon with it.
The first of my four stages of shame is sitting in the shame and feeling it, which is awful. Then the second one is denial, which looks like, “I don’t want to think about it.” Or, “I’m a good person, so I can’t be a racist”—it’s a refusal to discuss real facts. The third stage is transcending it, in which you have a reckoning with yourself: “This is actually true about my life.” And then the fourth stage—we often don’t get there—is when you reckon with it as a societal issue. After the George Floyd murder, I did think that part of our society in the United States was getting there. And you do see other examples: Harvard just announced that it’s making reparations for the use of slave labor. So there are individual examples, but I don’t think that we should expect true transcendence unless it happens as a whole society, for real and forever—and that is rare. What we should expect is a better and better narrative.
So for me personally, with my fat shame experience, it was sitting in shame a lot as a child, being in denial, not looking in the mirror for years. And then of course, a lot of attempts at dieting that failed—I would almost always end up fatter, and probably with more problems with my insulin system as well. And then I had a personal reckoning, and I realized, “Hey, diets don’t work for me.” And I even had a higher-level reckoning saying, “Hey, the diet industry is taking advantage of people.” But that didn’t stop me from being kicked right back into stage one of sitting in shame when certain comments were made about me.
I’m not saying I got rid of fat shame—I don’t want to claim that I have an answer to that. But instead of assuming that we can get rid of shame, we can stop giving other people shame.
To listen to the audio version read by author Cathy O’Neil, download the Next Big Idea App today: