Shaming people who fail to social distance backfires, Mason professor says

June Tangney

While social distancing is integral to combatting the coronavirus pandemic, shaming people who fail to do so backfires, says George Mason University psychology professor June Tangney.

“When people feel shame, they get angry,” said Tangney, who has written extensively about the effects of shame and guilt. “They are less inclined to take responsibility and more inclined to blame others.”

Shaming someone about social distancing is attacking that individual as a “bad person,” Tangney explained.

“Someone who feels like they are under attack as a bad person will get defensive,” she said. “What that person won’t do is change their behavior in a positive direction.”

Tangney teaches psychology and clinical and social psychology at Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. In addition to research on shame and guilt, she currently studies how best to improve treatment in jails, drawing on principles of restorative justice and cutting-edge research from social psychology.

Tangney said that guilt is a tool that can be used instead of shame.

Guilt is “focused on a particular behavior,” Tangney said Inducing guilt (as opposed to shame) may be more useful in changing people’s behavior. For example, one can intervene by focusing on a particular behavior, educating rather than shaming to persuade someone to change course, such as start following the rules for social distancing.

“You aren’t saying, ‘I think you are a horrible or selfish person for failing to social distance.’ You are saying, ‘I’m worried about you and also how your behavior affects people around you,’ ” Tangney said. “That gives a person a path to doing something different without getting defensive. It’s an invitation to change behavior, by appealing to their sense of guilt.”

Tangney said she has an additional concern when it comes to guilt during the coronavirus pandemic. She’s worried that people will feel guilty for unknowingly infecting someone else, perhaps even leading to illness or death.

“The insidious thing about this virus is that we can be contagious before we even know we’re sick,” she said. “In addition, there’s no way to live without some risk in getting exposed, even if it’s just by going to the grocery store. A person could have been very careful and responsible, and still passed along the virus.”

Some people will feel guilt, even when they “did their very best,” Tangney said.

“We have to remember that even when we are trying to be safe and responsible, we can’t control everything,” Tangney said.

June Tangney can be reached at

For more information, contact Anna Stolley Persky at

About George Mason 
George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 38,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.