Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

A vicarious shame: The resignation of Yale's football coach

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

The resignation of Yale's Head Football Coach Tom Williams grabbed my eye yesterday. Like many, I suspect, my assumption was that this would be a salacious sports coaching story, like the Penn State or Syracuse stories.

But I was wrong. Yale's big game against Harvard fell on the same day as the interviews for the Rhodes Scholarship. Without an interview, the quarterback had no shot at the Rhodes, so he had to make a choice between the Game and the Rhodes. Yale's coach stepped in for counsel: recalling that he had been in the exact same position of choosing between the Rhodes and the Game, Coach went with the game…and the rest, as they say, was history.

Except it wasn't history. Coach Williams had not been in the same position. He had not been asked to interview for the Rhodes; in fact, there are no records of his application! As this revelation came to light, the coach had little choice but to resign.

Not lost on many is the fact that Coach Williams is African American; in fact, the first African American head coach in the team's history. What might have been a source of collective joy for many minorities, seeing glass ceilings shattered even in the Ivy Leagues, becomes a potential source of vicarious shame.

Handsome Dan, Yale's original mascot

The term "vicarious shame" was coined by Brian Lickel, Toni Schmader, and their colleagues in a 2005 article that appeared in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. In this article, the authors make the important point that we can feel guilt and shame not only on the basis of our own actions, but also on the basis of the actions of others that we consider somehow similar to ourselves. The reseachers had undergaduates write about a time when they felt ashamed about the actions of a family member, a friend, or someone from their same ethnicity. An analysis of the participants' written responses revealed that three factors were associated with the degree of shame people felt over an ingroup members' actions: The first is the degree to which people felt the actions of the person were relevant to one's shared identity. Here it's relevant because Coach Williams' actions might reinforce a prejudiced view that successful minorities, either because of cheating or affirmative policy, don't really deserve their sucess. This itself is relevant to the second factor that predicted vicarious shame: whether the ingroup members' actions somehow reflected badly on oneself. I caught myself worrying that people might somehow wonder whether I had cheated my way through life. This type of threat, in turn, predicts not so good things for Williams: when people feel a member of their ingroup tarnishes the group's image and threatens them, people want to distance themselves from the event—and from the person.

It's important to note that vicarious shame is not a process that's associated only with minorities. Another study from this group (Johns, Schmader, and Lickel, 2005) found that Americans felt vicarious shame after recalling instances when other Americans were prejudiced against people of Middle Eastern descent following 9/11. Here, the more strongly participants identified with being an American, the stronger shame they felt—and the more they wanted to distance themselves from that identity afterward.

Having emotional reactions to others' actions is a normal part of who we are as social beings—just as we can feel proud when our team wins, we can feel guilt and shame when members of our important groups screw up. It's part of the fascinating concept of social identity—a personal phenomenon that is somehow, at the same time, a group phenomenon as well.

Yale's quarterback, by the way, chose the Game over the Rhodes. Yale was crushed 45-7. Boola boola.

Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.