Punch up, never down (review of Cathy O’Neil’s The Shame Machine)

Did anyone else stress-eat their way through the pandemic?

After two long years of sitting around on Zoom, I signed up with Noom in a bid to get into shape before going back to the office.

Noom’s a subscription-based app that calls itself the most modern weight loss course known to man or woman. It claims that 78 per cent of customers lost weight over a six-month study.

I am not one of those customers. I bailed before my free trial expired.

Cathy O’Neil would tell me I dodged a silver bullet. “Noom provides a prime example of marketing with sketchy statistics,” says the mathematician and author of The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation. “I’m glad I’m here to walk us through that research.”

According to O’Neil, Noom’s study only counted customers who’d recorded their data two or more times a month for six consecutive months. Customers, like me, who dropped out, weren’t included. “Noom’s decision to track only very active users is guaranteed to weed out people who have been overcome with shame. Selection bias, check.”

The study also didn’t go beyond a year, which O’Neil says is too short a time frame. Studies have shown that dieters who lose a lot of weight in the first year are likely to gain most or all of it back in years two through five.

“Noom makes money with bad science,” says O’Neil. “Let’s consider the human toll on the folks who ‘failed’ on the Noom diet. They are made to feel not only fat but condemned to remain so. And it’s their fault. Like other toxic forms of shame, this one hinges on a false choice. This failure, as defined by the shame machine, disheartens them every day. It’s a lifelong blight.”

The multi-billion dollar weight loss industry isn’t the only place we’ll find what O’Neil calls shame machines. We’re targeted daily by businesses and influencers who make us feel bad and then sell us pseudoscientific fixes that don’t work. They bank on us failing, feeling even worse and coming back for more. Shame sells and never runs out of easy marks. The rest of us turn a blind eye.

“These immense shame machines punch down on people to exploit their obesity, addiction, poverty or suboptimal health, gaining power and market share in the process,” says O’Neil.

“From addiction to poverty, a constant in these shame industries is the concept of choice. The guiding premise is that the victims screwed up: they could have chosen to be rich, shapely, smart and successful, and they didn’t. It’s their fault and yes, they should feel awful about it. But now they have the opportunity to right the wrong, to correct the problem and follow the prescribed route to redemption, which is almost always fruitless. The rest of us maintain this status quo by accepting as gospel its false premises: the losers deserve their fate because they’ve made bad choices; maybe if they feel bad enough, they’ll fit ix.”

The most powerful shame machines are the social media companies on our smartphones, says O’Neil. Enragement drives engagement and nothing works us into a frenzy quite like a digital shaming. But performative virtue-signaling solves little to nothing, and risks making things far worse. “The shame networks are busy engaging us to rip apart our social fabric, and in doing so, addict us to short-term highs, the feelings of petty power or outrage or vengeance.”

So what’s the solution? Don’t spend your time and money with businesses that profit off shame. Don’t vote for politicians that campaign on shaming others. Quit shaming strangers on social media. Extend dignity and forgiveness instead. Adopt a personal policy of due process. Treat others the way you’d want to be treated when you screw up.

And start punching up to shame the shamers. “We’ll fare far better as a society, in terms of both happiness and justice, if we succeed in redirecting shame from its current victims, who are disproportionately poor and powerless, to people who are taking advantage of the rest of us and poisoning our lives and culture,” says O’Neil.

This review was first published in the April 23rd edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

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Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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