Praise v. Shame

Offering praise is the best way to induce preventive behaviors in a pandemic

In efforts to motivate behaviors that prevent the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19, praise works better than shame—and much better when trying to convince political conservatives.

This according to a new study co-authored by Nidhi Agrawal and Lea Dunn of the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Their study of social media messaging intended to promote preventive behaviors emphasizes the importance of aligning tone with the politics of recipients in our increasingly polarized world.

Specifically, encouraging conservatives with praise motivates them to seek public health information from credible sources, increasing the likelihood that they will adopt practices like social distancing and mask wearing. Shaming them, however, has the opposite effect.

Nidhi Agrawal
Nidhi Agrawal

“While sometimes a powerful motivator, shame only works when individuals perceive they are violating well-established social norms,” explains Agrawal, the Michael G. Foster Endowed Professor of Marketing. “Without these norms in conservative communities, shame may create defensiveness that impedes the critical first step of information seeking and subsequent distancing behaviors.

“In these circumstances, we find that positive messages that motivate behavior via praise may be more effective.”

Calling out “covidiots”

Since COVID-19 became a global pandemic over a year ago, public health experts have advised that maintaining social distance (the 6-foot rule) is one of the most effective ways to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.


But not everyone has heeded this advice. Compliance often falls along politically partisan lines: liberals tend to follow the science-backed guidelines; conservatives are more likely to defy them.

Lea Dunn
Lea Dunn

How can they be convinced otherwise?

To answer this question, Agrawal and Dunn partnered with Sean Coary of Loyola University and Joshua Liao of the UW Schools of Medicine and Public Health and its Value and Systems Science Lab.

Their study was sparked by the prevalence of social media posts early in the pandemic calling out people who flouted public health guidelines by crowding in bars or gathering unmasked. A new term was even coined to shame them: “covidiots.”

It pushed the researchers to examine whether shaming can change behavior, or if there is a better way.

Which works best?

The study involved a group of randomly selected adults who self-reported their age, gender and political orientation. Then they viewed one of two anonymous social media posts.

The first conveyed shame: a photo of people gathering close together in a queue that was captioned “This is absolutely shameful!… way to put others at risk for your behavior… #socialdistancingfail.”

The second conferred praise: another photo of people in line, but this time revealing an orderly six feet of space between each, with the caption, “Look at these awesome people!… Now that’s social distancing… Way to put others first… #socialdistancingwin.”

After viewing their social media post, respondents were asked about their intentions to practice social distancing and to seek information from reputable organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and local public health authorities.

Another political divide

The researchers found a clear partisan divide between liberals and conservatives, the latter reporting far less intention to do either of the above.

But there also was a clear delineation between conservatives in the study.

Those who viewed praising social media posts were twice as likely to seek credible public health information than those who viewed shaming social media posts.

“We did not see behavioral intention change, per se,” explains Dunn, an assistant professor of marketing at Foster. “But we’re seeing a change in its antecedent: seeking information from respectable sources about appropriate behavior.”

On the other hand, shame had a negative effect on conservatives’ intentions, and only a slight positive effect on liberals, who were already inclined to follow rules set out by public health officials without any extra motivation.

Establishing new norms

Beyond corroborating this latest manifestation of the ideological divide rupturing America, what do these findings tell us?

Agrawal explains that establishing behavioral norms is the crucial factor in this analysis.

“The difference between liberals and conservatives becomes more pronounced the less clear the accepted norm is,” Agrawal says. “When there is clarity and broad agreement on acceptable behavior, then conservatives and liberals are closer together in their behaviors.”

...Our leaders need to fight misinformation and encourage preventive behaviors by establishing new norms and praising those who adopt them.”

Nidhi Agrawal

Take, as an example, covering your mouth when you cough. This behavior is widely accepted as correct and normal by vast majorities on both sides of the political aisle. As such, there is little variance its observance. Kids in red homes and kids in blue homes alike are taught to cover up their coughs. And no one contends that this socially expected behavior is an assault on one’s personal freedom.

Now, consider close social gathering in crowds and restaurants and bars. Prior to COVID-19, this behavior was perfectly normal. Even celebrated. In pandemic times, however, this same behavior has been shown to be dangerous. But habits and norms are difficult to change. And social distancing—like masking—has not achieved consensus normalcy, especially among conservative communities.

Praise, amplified

Agrawal and Dunn argue that positive and public reinforcement for those observing preventive behaviors as a new—and hopefully temporary—normal is the fastest way to achieve widespread adoption among doubters and deniers.

“You can create a norm of acceptable behavior in a positive way,” Dunn says. “So, not by denigrating those who don’t do it, but by lifting up the people who do.”

The study examined the power of positive social media messages to nudge behavior in the responsible direction. It can go against a powerful human instinct. “We encourage people not to shame on social media,” Agrawal says. “Even if it feels rewarding.”

“Shame doesn’t work,” Dunn adds. “Praise confers a kind of social clout.”

But they both agree that it is incumbent upon our leaders and influencers to amplify these positive messages, and to help reset behavioral norms when they are necessary for the public good.

“Whether it’s a social media post, a public health communication or a political speech,” Agrawal concludes, “our results suggest that our leaders need to fight misinformation and encourage preventive behaviors by establishing new norms and praising those who adopt them.”

“Using Praise and Shame to Encourage Social Distancing Amid COVID-19” is the work of Lea Dunn, Sean Coary, Nidhi Agrawal and Joshua Liao.

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.