Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Public Shaming for the Greater Good

By Magdeline Lum

Social media may be leading to more altruistic behaviour among its users.

Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are resurrecting the medieval concept of public shaming. The negative effects of this, like bullying, are widely reported but researchers at the University of British Columbia have found that the possibility of public shaming can have a positive effect on a group of people.

Shame is a traditional deterrent from socially unacceptable behaviour, and is used to single out offenders for public scorn. Conversely the bestowing of honour in the form of prizes can encourage people to care for the welfare. So the increasing use of users’ real identities on social network sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube could move communities towards a more harmonious existence.

The research team devised a series of games centred on the overuse of common resources. Each of the six anonymous players was given $12 and a randomly assigned name of a Greek god. Over 12 rounds of the game, participants were asked to privately decide whether to contribute $1 to a public pool. The total of the public pool would be doubled and equally distributed among all the players at the end of the 12 rounds whether or not they contributed.

At the end of game, participants were able to keep the remainder of their $12 as well as a share of the public pool, creating the opportunity for participants to withhold contributions and gain from the contributions of others.

The impact of honour and shame was tested when the researchers told the players that at the end of the tenth round the two least (or most) generous players would be asked to reveal their identities in front of the remaining four players, who remained anonymous.

The team found that when shame and honour were introduced to the participants of the group, cooperation increased by 50% with the final amount of the public pool reaching $33. The public pool of control groups where all participants remained anonymous reached $22.

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Winter in the southern parts of Australia usually means dreary days with rare moments of sunshine, but suppose you could punch a hole through the clouds to let the sun’s rays through. A team of US scientists think you can do this by sending aircraft through the clouds.

Andrew Heymsfield and his colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded this after examining satellite images of hole punch clouds and canal clouds. Some were visible for more than 4 hours and grew to lengths greater than 100 km. They then examined flight information data to determine the types of aircraft that were in the same area at the time.

With the aid of weather forecasting computer models, the team simulated cloud formation and growth. The team concluded that aircraft flying through low-level clouds could indeed cause holes and canals to form.

But that is not all that the team concluded. They say that ice is generated by the expansion and cooling of air behind the propeller blades and wings of aircraft. An aircraft’s propeller blades and wings can cool the air it travels through by up to 30°C.

Aircraft can be travelling through clouds with temperatures below –10°C made of supercooled liquid. The motion of a plane through this can spontaneously freeze the liquid, leaving a trail of ice crystals behind as the plane flies through the cloud. These ice crystals then seed clouds, leading to higher rates of precipitation around airports.

This observed phenomenon was seen in low-level clouds in cooler climates during take-off and landing. It is not believed that it will impact upon global weather patterns.