They really have no shame: From the Koch brothers to Woody Allen, how bad actors justify themselves

Some keep a low profile. Others hide behind charity work -- or just have no problem with public disapproval

By Jennifer Jacquet
Published April 5, 2015 7:00PM (EDT)
George W. Bush, Woody Allen      (Reuters/AP/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
George W. Bush, Woody Allen (Reuters/AP/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

Excerpted from "Is Shame Necessary?"

Quand les hommes ne peuvent changer les choses, ils changent les mots.
(When men cannot change things, they change words.)
— Jean Jaurès, speech at the International Socialist Congress, Paris (1900)

After the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic near midnight, there were countless acts of bravery. The wealthiest passenger on board, John Jacob Astor IV, helped his wife and her maid into a lifeboat and then smoked a cigarette as he and the ocean liner sank. The eight-member string band famously played on. Captain Smith, as captains do, went down with the ship.

Then there were the acts of shamelessness. In Lifeboat No. 1, Lady Duff-Gordon was reported to have remarked to her maid how it was a pity that her new nightdress would be lost, and Lord Duff-Gordon, who had married his match, offered the crew members £5 each to refrain from rowing their under-capacity lifeboat back toward the sinking ship (and they accepted).

But perhaps the greatest display of shamelessness was claimed by J. Bruce Ismay, the Titanic’s owner, who was on board that fateful night in 1912. First of all, there were too few lifeboats—they could handle but half of the 2,208 passengers and crew on board—and the shortage was a result of a decision Ismay himself had made before the Titanic’s maiden voyage. In the end, only 705 people were saved (nearly half of them men), one of whom was J. Bruce Ismay (in collapsible Lifeboat C). Then there were the rumors that Ismay had been the one to tell Captain Smith to speed up the ship. (The ship’s speed is assumed to be part of why the iceberg did so much damage upon collision.) The day after the Titanic went down, the New York Times headline included the words “Probably 125 perish; Ismay safe.” Only the second bit was true—more than fifteen hundred passengers had died.

On landing in New York, Ismay was subjected to official inquiry and testified that he felt he had done nothing wrong. But his behavior post-rescue suggested otherwise. Safely aboard the RMS Carpathia, which picked up the surviving passengers (all but one of the survivors were in the Titanic’s lifeboats), Ismay immediately locked himself away in the cabin that had been occupied by the ship’s doctor, where he stayed until the ship docked three days later at Manhattan’s Pier 34. In all the cables he sent from the Carpathia, he reversed the spelling of his last name both when signing them and talking about himself. These cables were read at the New York court investigation, and Joseph Conrad, who attended some of the hearings, began referring to Ismay as “the luckless ‘Yamsi.’ ”

When Ismay returned to England, he was unwelcome in British society. Children chanted “Coward, coward, coward” as they passed his gate. He eventually escaped to a remote part of Ireland, where, as one Oklahoma newspaper described it, he hid “in misery and shame.” Ismay was never found guilty of breaking the law, but he had certainly defied a code. “To live in isolation is an appropriate penance for someone who has committed a breach of faith with the community of mankind,” wrote Frances Wilson in How to Survive the Titanic, or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay (2011). Ismay would return to London and Liverpool, but he remained withdrawn from their societies—only hosting dinners at home and never eating in a party larger than eight. He didn’t report feeling guilt or shame, but Ismay was nevertheless shamed.

Ismay, like many Titanic survivors, paid a price for surviving. His particular debt was meted out in public disapproval, which Ismay never confronted. He hid from the other survivors on the Carpathia and later from the general public. If shaming causes no discomfort, there is no reason to change one’s behavior. But another concern is that shaming is so serious and causes such pain that the transgressor would rather live as an outsider or would rather not live at all. Shame is a painful emotion, and the outcomes of shaming are sometimes very uncertain. While, in the ideal situation, shaming causes its target to conform to the group’s idea of appropriate behavior, or makes others conform for fear of shaming, there are other possible reactions, many of them less than ideal, to the threat or actuality of shame.

Stop Shaming Before It Starts

Sometimes shaming is so acute, so powerful, and so effective that the best way to avoid it is to stop it from happening. This is, of course, easier to accomplish from a position of influence. For centuries, stopping shaming has been the prerogative of the powerful—from monarchs to religions to governments to politicians to corporations. For months, the American Press censored the story on the My Lai massacre, in which U.S. troops killed unarmed Vietnamese women, old men, and children. In 2012, WikiLeaks released evidence that in 2009, Dow Chemical had hired a private intelligence firm to spy on Yes Man Jacques Servin, a.k.a. Jude Finisterra. It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster—five years after the 2004 event at which Servin impersonated a Dow representative and “officially” apologized on behalf of the chemical giant for the Bhopal disaster—and Dow did not want to deal with the fallout of another shaming episode. The company was spying on Servin with the aim of stopping any possible shaming before it started.

A more recent example of trying to prevent shaming altogether is the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, supported by Big Agriculture and signed into U.S. law by President George W. Bush. This law extended the scope of terrorism to include activity “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise” and was a federal attempt to outlaw whistleblowing on farms and thereby prevent negative exposure. Current laws protecting animals in agriculture are weak, even though the majority of Americans support the humane treatment of all animals, including the ones we eat, which makes undercover footage of farm-animal abuse powerful. In the past few years, leaked videos of workers beating horses, punching pigs, and abusing birds have all led to prosecution. The agriculture industry has a strong interest in avoiding being shamed (or punished in other ways), and several states have also proposed or passed bills, underwritten by the agriculture industry, that prohibit making covert recordings at farms or applying for a job without disclosing ties to animal rights groups, or require that any discovery of wrongdoing be reported within twelve hours. In 2012, Utah passed one of the first laws making it illegal to record video or audio at a farm facility even without trespassing (such as when a woman filmed an injured cow from the side of the road).

Diluting Shame

Another way to avoid the threat or experience of shame is by keeping a low profile, which keeps an individual or a company under shame’s radar. In her 2010 New Yorker article “Covert Operations,” Jane Mayer wrote about the billionaire Koch brothers (owners of Koch Industries): “The Kochs have long depended on the public’s not knowing all the details about them. They have been content to operate what David Koch has called ‘the largest company that you’ve never heard of.’ ” Anonymity is an obvious way to escape shame, because shaming needs a reputation to expose.

In small groups, an individual can build a reputation more quickly. But as the group gets bigger, one act of defection is more diffused and weaker. In bigger groups, defectors are also more likely to find fellow defectors, which helps to normalize defection. (Perhaps this is why BP tried to bring Halliburton in on the Deepwater Horizon blame.) For the reason of increased anonymity in larger groups, shaming can also be weaker in big groups.

Experiments that threatened social exclusion of one person from a four-person group led to increased cooperation, but when the rules allowed for excluding two people from an eight-person group, cooperation did not increase. (Who left the group was decided by a group vote.)2 This means that part of shaming’s success in the public goods experiment my colleagues and I ran could be related to our choice of small, six-player groups.

Today’s world is full of one-off interactions and amorphous identities that also make escaping shame easier. When you know you are unlikely to run into the same individuals again, there is less incentive to change your behavior (which is why we did our experiments with students who all came from the same class, and early in the semester, so they were guaranteed to see one another in class again).

There are also so many companies, people, products, and labels that it’s impossible for us to keep perfect track of what’s going on. Enron, which in 2001 filed one of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history, hid billions of dollars in debt in hundreds of shell firms, which bought poorly performing Enron stocks so that the company could create a fraudulent company profile and mislead its auditors. Lehman Brothers, in the years before its 2008 collapse, used a smaller firm called Hudson Castle (of which it owned 25 percent) to shift risky investments off its books so that Hudson Castle, not Lehman Brothers, could absorb the “headline risk.” The Marine Stewardship Council, the eco-label for fish, uses third-party certifiers that nobody has ever heard of to do the actual certification, which means the MSC can divert the flak of bad decisions. Even high school students are now creating multiple social media accounts—ones where they can be themselves and another one under their real name, where they communicate only their best behavior for college admissions officers.

Another way to dilute shame is to compensate for bad behavior in one domain by building up your reputation in another, the way that Amazon, after a lot of negative publicity for bad behavior such as not collecting sales tax and using international tax havens, launched a charity site called AmazonSmile. The reverse is also true—sometimes reputation can be built up in one domain so that you can afford to behave badly in another. (Think Woody Allen.) Bluestreak cleaner wrasses also know how to do this. These wrasses eat parasites, along with dead or infected tissue, off reef fishes in more than two thousand interactions each day. They are tempted to eat more than just the parasites, but if the reef fish loses too much flesh in the deal, it will refuse to be serviced by the wrasse. When biologist Redouan Bshary watched cleaner fish in the Red Sea in 1999, he noticed that other reef fish watch cleaner wrasses to see whether they cooperate with current clients and avoid the wrasses they see biting off more than they should chew. Some cleaner wrasses are sneaky, though—they know when they are being watched and will build their reputation by politely cleaning small reef fish, allowing the big ones to observe them on their best behavior with the small fry. When the big reef fish comes in for cleaning, these wrasses will then cheat and eat some of the big reef fish’s flesh along with its parasites, fattening themselves on their defection.

Disabling Shame Through Different Mental States or Moral Categories

Another way to escape shame is to have no aversion to the prospect of social disapproval from the start. This strategy seems increasingly prevalent in cultures that have become more individualistic. Closeness to others is an important antecedent of shame, so distance from others—physical as well as mental—means that shaming is less likely to have an effect.

We appear to have stricter moral standards for individuals than for groups, which might serve to insulate some groups from shaming. But not all groups are created equal. People see McDonald’s, the U.S. Marine Corps, and Hare Krishnas as having high “group cohesion” and “group mind”—meaning that the group has intentions and makes plans—but people do not perceive the same cohesion in groups of “blondes” or “golfers.” They also perceive certain groups (ones with high “group mind”) as being more responsible for their collective actions: Citibank and the U.S. Navy are seen as more responsible for what they do than are car owners and tennis players.

At the same time, we allow certain groups of people to behave in ways that we would never allow an individual person to behave. Corporations, for example, are allowed to operate for the overriding mission of profit and are perhaps held to a different standard of behavior. Milton Friedman explained that a corporate executive may have many other responsibilities, such as “to his family, to his conscience, his feelings of charity,” but that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” According to Friedman, it can be immoral for a corporation to be moral. These views are part of the reason Friedman took a cream pie to the face during a 1998 conference on the privatization of public education.

Excerpted from "Is Shame Necessary?" by Jennifer Jacquet. Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer Jacquet. Published by arrangement with Pantheon, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Jennifer Jacquet

Jennifer Jacquet is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University. She works at the intersection of conversation and cooperation.

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