Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Guilt Dominates Shame

I stumbled across a fascinating lecture on shame and guilt by June Tangney, a psychology professor at George Mason. I used to think they were the same, but she points out they are profoundly different.

She starts with a story about when she saw her little daughter kick her sibling, she wanted her daughter to feel bad. That is, though she loves her daughter, she wants her snowflake to feel bad sometimes, as it's a healthy corrective when one inevitably does bad things. The question is, how should you feel bad about yourself in such cases?

Guilt and shame are emotions not present at birth because they require a sense of self and standards; babies don't feel them. She defines shame as feeling bad about oneself, guilt feeling bad about behavior. Shame is feeling 'I am bad', guilt is feeling 'I did a bad thing.'  Both are painful, but guilt is not nearly as overwhelming.

 Guilt leads to thinking about behavior and its effect on others, shame is more focused on how others think about us. Shame attempts to hide and deny to escape the situation, even anger.  Guilt involves regret and remorse, and leads to a focus on reparation and redress. Guilt and other-oriented empathy go hand in hand, while shame interferes with empathy.

As a good scientist, she looks at data and finds people more prone to shame are not as mentally healthy as people prone to guilt. Further, people prone to shame blamed others more for their misfortune, classic defensive Freudian projection. Shame-proneness is more related to depression, anxiety disorders, low self-esteem, drug use, destructive behaviors, etc. Guilt proneness, in contrast, is associated with lower recidivism by convicts.  It doesn't seem to be inherited, as the correlation between parent and child in shame-proneness was a measly 0.1.

She recommends guilt as the moral emotion of choice. Parents should minimize shame and humiliation, but rather to call children's attention to the harm that they've done, make redresses, and empathize with those they have hurt.  Guilt is much more constructive and proactive, and changing behavior is the key to improving one's situation.

7 comments:

Richard Fitzgerald said...

bernard williams's 'shame and necessity' is a good philosophical source on shame vs. guilt

Richard Fitzgerald said...

bernard williams's 'shame and necessity' is a good philosophical source on shame vs. guilt

Mercury said...

Very interesting.
I’m not so sure shame is obsolete although clearly our culture has moved away from it: no one is ever intrinsically bad these days (except maybe Nazis, racists and child molesters) and heaven forbid someone actually feels badly about themselves or their self-esteem gauge dips below 9.5 because of something they have done.

Despite the decline of organized religion guilt is still big. In fact I’d argue that religion (which I think most people are hard-wired for) hasn’t declined so much as things like Environmentalism have taken market share away from things like Catholicism.

Asians generally have more of a shame culture than Westerners (except maybe Indians- Jewish mothers don’t have much on them in the guilt department…or education/family values either) but I still think it has its place in Western culture. It can probably be very effective as a threat even if it is very rarely deployed - similar to the way some people view spanking children. Do we really want to empty out the category of things that would cause you to feel badly about yourself for having done?

It’s hard for me to disassociate this issue from the current cultural obsession with “self-esteem” though. Beyond some critical level I think higher self-esteem yields diminishing marginal returns. Not many people have higher self-esteem than me and I’m here to tell you: that PLUS $10 will buy you lunch.

Jim Oliver said...

I have wondered if teaching prisoners economics would be a good thing. Even prisoners want there country to do well so pointing out the value destroyed by crime might help.

Tel said...

Jim Oliver: while you are teaching them economics, also teach them managerial skills and accounting. That way at least they can be efficient criminals and reduce the collateral damage.

Mercury: mate, the guilty have no shame.

If I had to put faith in the police (who are far from perfect) or in Edgar Alan Poe where the bad guy just rolls over and confesses every crime -- I would choose the police.

Mercury said...

Tel - since neither are present at birth that just means the shameless simply haven't been taught.

Not sure what you're getting at with Poe but maybe his bad guys are from an era where confessions motivated by shame weren't so implausible.

Many forms of crime are very, very low in Japan (for instance) vs. the same categories here. I'm sure there are other trade-offs but I'd be surprised if the perceived risk of shame wasn't responsible for that to a considerable extent.

Shadow said...


"Not sure what you're getting at with Poe"

This is the reference if I'm not mistaken:

The Tell-Tale Heart

http://en.wikipedia.or/wiki/The_Tell-Tale_Heart