top of page
Image by Waldemar

Psychology : Applied

The Psychology of Stranger Shaming

Novel words to describe new activities appear to be propagating at least as quickly as the new-fangled technologies that are responsible for these clever coinages. In 2013 the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” was “selfie” due to its increase in usage over that year by a whopping 17,000 percent. Last year the word was “vape” for obvious reasons. By the end of this year, at this rate, it is likely to be “stranger shaming.” The English language is no doubt amenable to producing new words to illustrate our technology enabled behaviours. “Selfie” has become worn by everyday use. We can now welcome, if without much enthusiasm, it’s younger cousin, stranger shaming; taking photos of those you disapprove of for some reason, and posting them online.

First came the selfie:

Since the rise of the selfie (and more recently, the selfie-stick), the idea of taking a suitably “random” photo of one’s self and hoicking it up online has become for many the exemplar of the kind of self referential narcissism we’ve grown to expect from our ubiquitous social media culture. As it turns out, most of the time, selfies are just a bit of innocent fun – but even so, they are not without psychological meaning. During the height of the selfie craze, I was asked to speak about this phenomenon with journalist Mircea Barbu for the Romanian Newspaper, Adevarul:

In brief, I explained to Mircea the selfie phenomenon is not so dissimilar from the psychological motivation behind social media in general, that is, the use of an online platform to enable the activities of the ego to seek recognition from others across a digital medium. In fact, in addition to my book, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking, I have written a great deal on this issue on my psychology of social media blog, including posts on:

Each of these posts describe how the motivations of our psychological selves extend from beyond our physical bodies into the digital world. These psychological motivations (or drives if you speak Freudian) meet the variety of architectures that exist in the digital world in the form of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and then use them in the ways that are most amenable to a given psychological expression. For the two main hitters like Twitter and Facebook, the most amenable expression is an ego one, which is why so much of the time “it’s all about me” – and the selfie is the perfect example of that.

selfie 2

The psychological function of stranger shaming:

Shame is a difficult and intensely uncomfortable emotion to have, some might say it’s one of the worst emotions one can experience. While shame has a positive function in the way it  enables a form social compliance that allows us to live together in varying degrees of harmony and civility, it can have much more sinister affects when it is deployed for the aim of harming someone. You see, shame has to have a witness or it doesn’t work. If you fall flat on your arse when your on your own, you might feel silly about it, but if you do it in front of a crowd, you are more likely to feel shame.


Shame is such a powerful emotion that it is often used as the chief weapon in traditional bullying, cyberbullying or trolling. In Sadism on the Internet I describe how individuals might resort to trolling in order to evacuate their own bad feelings about themselves by way of an anonymous social network or by the use of anonymous @handles on Twitter. Young people may choose to cyberbully their victim by shaming them through public networks to get the biggest rise out of them. This can be soul destroying to the victim because their shame is scaled up to so many staring eyes – many have resorted to suicide to end this terrible feeling.

As I recently said in The Independent, stranger shaming says more about the person doing the shaming, than the hapless object of that person being shamed:

The sharing of the photo is a psychological reflection of the person taking the picture, not the photographed. Individuals may stranger shame to evacuate their own bad feelings. Alternatively, when attractive people are photographed, it may also be a way of expressing the sharer’s sexual tastes and desires. In both cases…..the intention is to show up their difference, something they may already be quite sensitive about.

While the intention behind stranger shaming may not be to harm others, the process of it can be harmful one in any case. First of all, unlike the selfie, in a stranger shaming situation, the other person is not giving their consent to be photographed. Even worse, in most cases of stranger shaming the object is to photograph something wrong with that individual, whether it be their rather unique sense of fashion, the result of their bad hair day or ill-advised shoe selection. Even worse is when people are stranger shamed merely for the cut of their jib (the way they look) or any other idiosyncratic ‘oddity.’

It’s not so much the intention to shame as the lack of comprehension that the other is a real person:

Whether or not there is an intention of an individual doing the stranger shaming to harm, there is still something fundamentally  wrong with this behaviour. Rather than indicating a desire to shame (as cyberbullying does), it indicates the inability of the individual taking the photo to stop for a second and realise that the person they are photographing and thrusting online is a real live person, like them, with feelings. Sure, they might be wearing a terrible jumper, but is it really right to digitally point and laugh at their choices in front of the whole world? I think not.

It’s a photo of you, but it’s still all about me me me:

And here we have the rather frightening but painfully real cultural condition that social media enables – seeing other people and other things as a representation of ourselves rather than as full subjects unto themselves. If that doesn’t make sense, think of it this way.

If you post a photo of a rainbow, kitten or cute dog on Instagram, you are saying something about yourself, “This is what I like, this is what I want to show you.” If you upload a selfie, you are equally saying, “Here is a representation of myself that I’d like you to see [and like, and share, and follow, etc.].” So what does it mean if you are uploading photos of strangers?

You are saying, “Look at what I’ve noticed! Look how this person is different!  Isn’t it great that you and me aren’t different in this way?

By hoicking that person’s “difference” online, you are reassuring yourself that you’re a part of the “in group”. Utilising very much the same tactics of the scape-goat, you reassure your belonging by showing up how somebody else doesn’t belong.

This process allows an individual to evacuate their bad feelings about themselves through the process of projection, thereby giving them a better sense of security at the expense of another person (again, just like scapegoating). Remember when I talked about the architecture of the social media? Here we are again. The combination of the smartphone, 3G and 4G networks, and the nature of online shared experience allow all sorts of behaviours that would previously have been impossible. It allows us to take and distribute photographs of others and share them with friends and strangers without pausing to think that that other person has feelings, and more importantly, without even bothering to ask them for consent.

In many ways it allows what may previously have been a thought to become an action.

The original thought comes from that primitive part of ourselves (the id) that is relatively shameless. The rapidity with which we can have our thought and share it bypasses our socialised super-ego. This is further enabled by the fact that we exist in a culture in which we are all knowingly (though not always aware of) tracked and photographed at all times. It has ultimately made us less sensitised to concerns for our own privacy, or indeed the privacy of others.

Because I consider myself an optimist, the rather dark sensibility of this post is worrisome in its dystopian tone just like 1984 or Brave New World. At times I am very hopeful about what technology can bring. However, the nature and culture that seems to allow for and enable the de-subjectification of other human beings through stranger shaming (not to mention trolling and cyberbullying) very much requires us to stop, pause, and think.


More from me in my book,

You may also wish to join my Author Page on Facebook to keep up with my latest blog posts, events, and news about psychology, social media, and technology.




Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page