Guest Post: Guilt & Shame & Climate Change


The six undergrads that trickle into the Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratory at the University of British Columbia are unsure about what they’re in for. The room they enter is all black from the carpet to the walls and the ceiling. A conference table partitioned into six sections is illuminated in the middle. They each take a seat and anonymously play ten rounds of a computer game. Fifteen minutes later the players file out, different amounts of cash in hand. They glance at each other furtively: were you the defector that ruined the game for all of us, they wonder, or were you the irrational altruist?

In this experiment Jennifer Jacquet, an environmental economist, and Christoph Hauert, a mathematician at the University of British Columbia, have pitted  self-interest against collective gain in order to tease apart what induces and destroys cooperation on climate change.  We tend to think of climate change as a global issue that technology and science will solve. Think again. It’s just as much a question about human nature. Ergo, mitigating climate change may not lie in cutting edge biofuels. It may lie in our very nature. Just how to tease it out is what Jacquet is after:  “All the models will tell us cooperation is best but none of them tell us how to get there.” 

For the six undergrads in the black lab, it goes a bit like this. Each player is given a $20 “operating fund”; another $20 is placed in an “endowment” for them. In each round, players can anonymously donate some money from their “operating fund” to mitigate climate change. Over the course of ten rounds, if the sum total invested towards climate change by all the players reaches $60, then each player gets to cash out the remaining balance left in their “operating fund” in addition to the $20 endowment. If the sum total invested over the course of the game is under $60, then the $20 “endowment” is forfeit and players just got to cash out on the balance in their “operating” fund. So did the undergrads work together to save the planet? The results of the experiment are in the publishing pipeline. Stay tuned.

The question of cooperation among humans has been critical to our survival at a couple points in history. The nail-biting nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War is one such example. From 1953-1960 the Doomsday Clock was set to two minutes to midnight, where midnight meant toast. Today’s environmental issues are another example. Since 2007 the Doomsday Clock has segued to include factors like climate change and “new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm” in its countdown to apocalypse. It’s currently set to five minutes to midnight.

In order to forestall the disastrous toll of climate change, we must reduce current carbon emissions by 50% by 2050. That’s a lot of cooperation to foster real fast. As Manfred Milinski, an evolutionary game theorist and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany puts it, climate change is a “global climate tragedy of the commons” with over six billion players, none of whom can afford to lose. So are we up to the task? And if not (because let’s face it, 3.5 billion years of evolution have done nothing but honed us to be selfish buggers, so oh, to be a prosocial insect and serve the greater good of the beehive) how can we stack the deck in favour of cooperative resolutions?

It looks like shaming people might work better than guilting them. A study published last year in Biology Letters suggests that publicly shaming and honouring people may help. In the experiment groups of university students played a public goods game that pits collective interests of the group against individual gain. “The more cooperative you are the more money everyone makes,” explained Jacquet, who was one of the study authors together with Hauert. “However the more selfish you are, the more money you make relative to the group.” Turns out that outing the two most generous (recognizing honour) and two least cooperative players (who courted opprobrium from their peers) increased cooperation across the entire group by 50%. In other words, there may be a fail safe built into our human nature to help alleviate the tragedy of the commons. It’s called peer judgement.

The findings underscore the ways in which society can leverage the power of shame and honor to increase cooperation over the internet.  Jacquet cites examples of how the internet, or the “global town square” as Bill Gates calls it, can enforce social norms through judgment.  Websites like Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes, or Ripe use one’s social network to honour or shame retailers. Twenty US states now have websites that list taxpayers who don’t pay up. New York’s Craigslist now links to a list of 153 of the worst landlords in the city. “So we might use honour or shame rather than a fine or imprisonment as a deterrent,” says Jacquet. “It’s the step before punishment.” In which case, let the finger wagging begin and let us set up a pillory in the digital “global town square”.


For more on Jacquet’s work and brainy big thoughts, read her article over at The Edge “Is Shame Necessary”:  

Also, if you want to delve deep, her and Hauert’s research paper “Shame and honour drive cooperation” June 2011, Biology Letters

Bio:  Anne Casselman is a Vancouver-based science writer. She writes for various outlets including Canadian Geographic,, National Geographic News and The Walrus.

Photo credits:  Anne Casselman

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2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Guilt & Shame & Climate Change

  1. There used to be a law, in some states at least, against blackened windows in automobiles. Reportedly, the law was for the safety of the police – to be able to see into the interior of vehicles that they pulled off the highways. But, as far as I can tell, that law has either been repealed or is not being enforced, because we now see more and more automobiles with windows blackened, some to a nearly pitch black tone, effectively obscuring the occupants of the vehicle from public view.

    Is this window blackening to hide the also-illegal radar detectors from view? Or, is it to save on the cost of prescription sunglasses needed for driving? Or, is it to protect the driver from having any social pressures impinge on their driving manners. When no one can see you, you can drive as rudely as you want with shameless impunity. The Tragedy of the Commons now gets applied to a public highway, as the drivers in these “black boxes” refuse to share it anyone else – other drivers, bikers and especially slower-moving, “inconveniently-in-my-way” pedestrians.

    Admittedly, rude driving is not anything like the problem of climate change, but it is an example of where the social-pressuring “finer wagging” of peer judgement is purposefully repelled by a “cocoon” of blackened windows, like sunscreen is used to block the harmful ultraviolet rays of the Sun from burning us.

    Where best prescribed, let’s remove these cocoons – physically or digitally – and return to the peer-pressured, altruistic, group-oriented civility for which we and other social animals are adapted. Yes, some may call it “socialism”, but exploiting this adaptation may well save us … from our other, more primitive survival adaptation – self interest.

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