The Stigma Game

Back in the 1960s, sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about stigma. He identified three categories (behavioral, physical, and group) and analyzed how stigma happens.

That decade was the start of a cultural shift away from stigma, and we live now in a time where stigmatizing others is considered rude. Actually, recently it has gone past that. Shaming another person for behavior, body, or buddies can get a person yelled at, fired, or even beaten up. Stigmatizing behavior is the only behavior stigmatized without regret any more, it seems.

It is a good thing. Nobody likes to be bullied, and our world is better when innocent differences and quirks are let alone. And yet, in reflecting on a stigma-free society, it has occurred to me that in losing stigma we are losing a social tool that does have its values.

What made me hesitate was a consideration of the young and the old and the harsh lessons of life. Say you are an old person who has learned said lessons. If you are a nice person, you might want to communicate them to younger people, so they don’t do the stupid things you did. However, simply saying things to people rarely works. “Don’t drink too much beer” results in ‘Yeah, old man, I get it. I’ll keep it down [to 16 or 20 hahahah]…” You can’t tell other people what to do.

Shame works, though. If you have a culture where drinking too much is shamed and stigmatized, you’ll have less drinking. Lots of game theory experiments show that you can get people to be nice to the group if you let group members punish them for being a jerk. If you let players punish others, everyone can be made to conform to behaviors that the group likes. If you let old people punish young people for drinking too much, through stigma or shame or something, you’d definitely have less binge drinking.

These thoughts led me to wonder, what if we compared a world where binge drinking is heavily stigmatized to a different world where “you be you” is the reigning response to it. Benefits and costs, of course, as always. In the YBY world, young people binge drink a lot, and a bunch of them learn later that it was a mistake. They learn the harsh lessons of life in the School of Hard Knocks, as they say. However, nobody has to deal with being ashamed of themselves. In the shame-the-drunk world, in contrast, lots of innocent young drinkers have to deal with bad attitudes from old people. Some drinkers on the road to serious problems respond to the stigma, control their drinking, and avoid the School of Hard Knocks. Some others, though, get a huge thrill from making the old people mad. They drink just to be different.

This gets into the weird dynamic of social rebellion. Everybody wants to be different, to show their individuality, especially when they are young. Young people will rebel against the world, no matter what the world is like. But in a YBY world, nobody cares what a rebel does. It doesn’t bother anybody. You can’t rebel against a system if the system says “Do whatever you want, we don’t care.” In that kind of world, a rebel has to do things that are super crazy to stand out as a rebel. In the drinking example, you have to nearly kill yourself with alcohol in order to stand out from the masses of “normally” binging people. But in a world where boozing is stigmatized, you’re a rebel if you drink more than a few beers. Well, that’s a safer rebellion. Stigma makes rebellion safer.

After thinking about all that, I wondered whether it might make sense to bring back stigma about a few things. The cost would be, some innocent people would be shamed for no good reason. And, old people would have to be sticking their noses more into the affairs of the young. Chaperoning and stuff. (I’m at a college campus, so I’m imagining a rule where any big party has to have two faculty there. Two SOBER faculty.) But the benefit would be, fewer people who learn things the hard way, and, young people could rebel without taking their lives into their hands.