We had gathered with some friends recently and our discussion veered towards the Donald Sterling case. Someone wondered if the strong backlash on the Internet would serve as a lesson for leaders and inhibit them from misbehaving in the future. During the age when a person’s every move is a click away from being posted on the Internet, are leaders going to be more careful?
Two camps developed to debate this question. One side believed in the Internet’s power to curb leaders. I was in this camp. The other side believed that inappropriate behavior of the kind that Donald Sterling had engaged in is largely wired into people and public shaming on the Internet won’t make much of a difference. My wife was in this camp. The debate remained unresolved. That was the best I could hope for against my wife because the only other option was … defeat.
It is not uncommon for judges to punish misdemeanors or crimes by ordering public shaming. However, there is no evidence of whether public shaming works. As an academic, I turned to the scientific literature to see if I could answer whether the fear of public shaming on the Internet would curb leaders’ inappropriate behaviors. The answer I found provides more evidence to my wife that she’s always right. The Internet, according to my analysis, is unlikely to curb leaders.
There are models of human behavior according to which, prior to any behavior they might consider to be inappropriate, people consider the probability of getting caught and the resulting consequences. Greater probability of getting caught and more negative perceived consequences would lower the inclination to behave inappropriately. It is easy for a leader to see that the probability of getting caught is greater today due to the increased ability to capture anyone’s behavior. With the use of the Internet as an extremely potent weapon for destroying someone’s reputation in plain view of any intelligent leader, the increased negativity of the consequences of being caught should be obvious too. Thus, theoretically speaking, leaders would be inclined to curb their inappropriate behavior lest they be exposed and publicly shamed on the Internet.
But recent models of human tendencies suggest a more complicated picture. According to one study, people underestimate the social pain caused by acts like public shaming and ostracism unless they have experienced the pain themselves. While people can see that someone has undergone social pain, they are unable to gauge the actual extent of that pain. When asked to estimate the social pain they would feel if they were to experience an event known to cause that pain, people underestimate the pain compared to those who have actually undergone the experience. In psychology, this is known as the cold-to-hot empathy gap, or the tendency for people in a cold state (i.e., not experiencing the pain-causing event) to underestimate the effect compared to those in a hot state (i.e., experiencing the pain-causing event). Thus, just the knowledge of painful shaming on the Internet may not be ‘hot’ enough to curb a leader’s behavior.
One could claim that even though a leader has never experienced a particular pain-causing event, and thus underestimates the intensity of the social pain, that leader may still be inhibited due to greater awareness of the possibility of experiencing the pain. Thus, the leader may still be able to consciously stop the inappropriate behaviors from occurring. But this relies on self-restraint. And it assumes that one’s behavior is largely conscious or deliberate. The transgressions that leaders often get publicly shamed for are usually impulsive in nature. Think Donald Sterling’s racist rant or Anthony Weiner’s sexting. A study has shown that people suffer from what is referred to as the restraint bias, or the illusion of self-restraint during impulsive situations. Consequently, people tend to put themselves in tempting situations believing that they would be able to restrain themselves. Unfortunately, the belief of restraint is largely illusory and one just gives in.
Then there are those who may have previously committed a transgression and experienced the associated social pain. But due to an emotional deficit, they may experience the pain at a lower level which makes them more likely to commit the transgression again. Anthony Weiner’s repeated sexting transgressions, despite public shaming for earlier misbehavior, illustrates this emotional deficit.
A person may occasionally transgress due to another reason: ego depletion, or the exhaustion of the self-control reserve. According to a model of self-control, self-control is a limited resource that gets depleted with use during the course of a day. Exhausting this resource leaves one depleted and self-control on behavior requiring restraint suffers for the rest of the day. Knowledge of public shaming on the Internet does nothing to this reserve; whenever it is exhausted, restraint for the inappropriate act would be missing.
So what can we conclude from the literature? Essentially, awareness of the inflation of the pain or negative consequences of transgressions that make it to the Internet is likely to have little impact on a leader’s behavior. Thus, attempts, including one by a recent Wall Street Journal article, to make leaders aware that their roles are increasingly public due to the Internet and caution them are likely to go nowhere. Leaders are unlikely to straighten themselves unless they have previously been through the social pain associated with being exposed. Even in such cases, leaders who have emotional deficits or suffer from ego depletion are likely to succumb to their temptations.
Once again, my wife was correct. And, I have no problems with that.
I’ve always believed in the best person winning the argument!