Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Guilt and shame
What are the similarities and differences between guilt and shame?
Shame and guilt have been used interchangeably. Any internet search would show you how different professionals use terms such as "feelings of shame and guilt" or "the effects of shame and guilt" and do not differentiate between these emotions. However, research has shown that these two emotions are not the same. The are two main problems with this confusion. First, if people cannot differentiate between shame and guilt, they cannot express precisely what they are feeling, and other people cannot understand. This miscommunication can create many problems for relationships between people. Second, people cannot apply the correct strategies to control their emotions if they cannot differentiate between them. Emotional intelligence and psychological well-being can be enhanced by learning about our everyday emotions.
This chapter will discuss key differences and similarities between shame and guilt in order to have a better understanding of how these emotions come about and the implications in people's everyday lives.
This book chapter will address the following questions:
the reader will be able to:
To first understand the similarities and differences between guilt and shame, it is essential to know that they are emotions. Even though we all have experienced a lot of different emotions, trying to define them can be difficult. Izard (1993) proposed a multi-system model of emotion activation that includes biological, sensorimotor, motivational, and cognitive components. In other words, emotions include a change in the body, in people's expressions or body posture, in what they want to do at the moment and in what they are thinking and feeling.
Specifically, shame and guilt are categorised as self-conscious emotions. This group of emotions have a focus on the self, in their perception of what other's think about them (Leary, 2017). Embarrassment, shame and guilt are negative self-conscious emotions whereas pride is a positive self-conscious emotion (Tangney, 1999). This type of emotions required the ability to evaluate one's behaviour and to infer what other people think of that behaviour. Since self-conscious emotions are more cognitive complex, they emerge later in life than basic emotions like fear and joy (Lewis,1993 as cited in Beer et al., 2005).
Shame is a self-conscious emotion (Leary, 2017) as well as a moral emotion (Tangney, Stuewig & Mashek, 2007). This means that it is an emotion based on self-evaluation that also includes moral standards. When the individual thinks of him themselves as incompetent or that their actions transgressed moral standards, feelings of worthlessness and inferiority rise and create an image of a damaged self (Tangney, 1999). This can also be experienced when a person fails to live up to an ideal self-concept (Tracy & Robins, 2004). This was first proposed by Lewis (1971),she said that shame is the negative evaluation of the entire self.
Shame involves a negative evaluation of the self that is usually accompanied by a sense of being powerless and worthless. It also includes a certain level of exposure; with shame comes an idea that the self is being disapproved by others (real or imaginary), even if the person is alone (Tangney, Wagner & Gramzow, 1992). Shame is an overwhelming feeling that can be accompanied by a lot of negative things.
When people feel ashamed, they try to deny, hide or scapethe cause of the shame (Tangney, Stuewig & Mashek, 2007). Physiological research has shown that with shame come elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokine and cortisol, and this can result in a defensive body posture and an expression of concealment (Dickerson, Gruenewald & Kemeny, 2004). Furthermore, research has shown that, from infancy, fail related emotions are characterised by gaze and head movements downward and a body posture that tends to lean forward (Stipek et al., 1992).
Purposive features of shame
Emotion can initiate action. The purposes of shame may sound contradictory. Research has shown that shame activates both protective and restorative motives. This means the person may try to repair the damaged self or the person may withdraw from the situation, in that way it protects the self from more damage (de Hooge, Zeelenberg & Breugelmans, 2010). More recent research has tried to explain how shame can create both motives. de Hooge et al. (2011) described that the idea to restore the self comes in first, but if it is too risky, the restorative motive is reduced while the protective motive stays the same regardless of the situation. In this way, the protective motive is dominant, and the approach behaviour is less apparent.
Guilt is also a self-conscious emotion (Leary, 2017). Lewis (1971) describes it as the self's negative evaluation of a specific behaviour. It originates as a response from doing something that causes harm or hurt someone else (Baumeister, Stillwell & Heatherton, 1994). This means that we feel guilt when we are responsible for someone's adverse outcomes (Zeelenberg & Breugelmans, 2008). Baumeister et al. (1994) proposed that guilt is not something that happens inside people but something that happens between people. This means that guilt is linked to cooperative relationships between people. However, Tangney (1999) contradicted Baumeister's view that guilt arises from what the individual imagine someone else thinks of his behaviour; for Tangney (1999), the other person's feelings and thoughts are not necessary since guilt arises from what the individual believe of their own behaviour.
Different schools of thought have proposed theories about why we experience guilt but, in general, guilt is seen as a negative emotion, and feeling guilty is usually unpleasant (Cryder, Springer & Morewedge, 2012). Tangney et al. (1996) found that when people felt guilty, they felt responsible, they wanted to make amends, and they wished they had acted differently. However, guilt is usually accompanied by positive things.
Purposive features of guilt
Baumeister et al. (1994) proposed that guilt has 3 functions.
First, it motivates people to behave in a way that would enhance relationships. Tangney et al. (2007) describe the motivated actions of guilt as reparative motives; including confessions, apologies, and undoing the consequences of the behaviour. Other research has supported this; a study done by Ketelaar & Tung Au (2003) demonstrated that when people feel guilty based on a previous selfish decision, they then display higher levels of cooperation with the same person.
Second, guilt can be used as an influence strategy: if person 1 wants person 2 to do something, person 1 will create guilt in person 2, making person 2 believe that the adverse outcomes person 1 is living can be prevented by person 2. Guilt as social influence has not received enough attention. A significant contribution made on this topic was by O'Keefe (2002). In his book chapter "Guilt as a mechanism of persuasion", he proposed that anticipating guilt in someone else is an effective strategy of persuasion.
The third function of guilt proposed by Baumeister is to restore emotional balance. This means that if person 1 committed a transgression against person 2, guilt would make person 1 feel bad. In their article, they explained that this emotional balance could be beneficial for the transgressor and the victim's relationship because when they are in similar emotional states, they have a mutually satisfactory interaction that usually results in positive outcomes.
"Guilt is a common form of emotional distress and a common factor in behavioural decisions. People invoke guilt feelings to apologize for misdeeds, to express sympathy, to manipulate others, to refuse sex, to discipline children, to bolster self-control, and more, and they perform or avoid a stunning variety of actions because of the anticipation of guilt".
Baumeister, Stillwell & Heatherton (1994)
Shame and guilt are emotions that are part of the human experience. The lack of experiencing self-conscious emotions, such as shame, has been highly correlated with psychopathological tendencies (Morrison & Gilbert, 2001). However, why do we experience these emotions? How did they come about? The following perspectives try to explain these questions.
The evolutionary perspective is based on the belief that human's traits are adaptive and that they have evolved for our survival (Dickerson, Gruenewald & Kemeny, 2004). The evolutionary theory of emotion proposes that emotions serve three functions: motivation, communication and cognition (Nesse, 1990). These functions have helped us survived throughout the years. To be more specific, it has been theorised that self-conscious emotions (e.g., shame and guilt) are essential in the regulation of social behaviour because they punish negative conduct (Beer, 2003).
Nesse (1990) explained that guilt does more than just restore relationships after transgression. He mentioned that "trying to right the wrong" would imply a relationship based only on reciprocity; instead, guilt help create bonds between people, and Nesse argued that people with stronger relationships have a "major advantage" over the people who are only interested in reciprocal return. Regarding shame, Beer (2003) argued that shame provides evolutionary advantage since anticipating feelings of shame can help us to avoid the consequences of bad behaviour.
The cognitive perspective proposes that attributions (inferences made about one's or other's behaviour (Weiner, 1972)) influence future actions, thoughts and consequently influence and elicit emotions (Weiner, 1985). Different types of attributions have been related to different emotions. A study done by Tracy & Robins (2006) showed a positive relation between shame and internal, stable, uncontrollable attributions, whereas internal, unstable, controllable attributions were positively related to guilt. To better understand how attributions work, let's examine the following example:
Attribution example for shame and guilt.
|Internal: It was my fault.||Internal: It was my fault.|
|Stable: I am always clumsy.||Unstable: I was probably tired.|
|Uncontrollable: no matter how hard I try, I will always be clumsy.||Controllable: I spent the night playing video-games.|
Spilling coffee all over John's computer can rapidly escalate to a stressful situation. Based on the attribution theory, the inferences that we make about why we spilled coffee on the computer can result in different emotions. On one hand, If the situation happened because of you (internal), you are not even surprised because you are always clumsy (stable), and you think that you cannot do anything to change how clumsy you are (uncontrollable), you may reach the conclusion that you are a failure and that spilling coffee on the computer is just an example of how worthless you are. When you see your entire self as "what is wrong", you experience shame.
On the other hand, if the situation happened because of you (internal), you think you spilled coffee because you were tired, and you now that if you haven't spent the night playing video-games, you would have been more alert, you may feel guilty. When you think that you did something that was wrong to someone else, and you know you could have avoided it (but you only feel sorry about the behaviour), you feel guilty.
How do shame and guilt affect our lives?
Now that we know the definition and basic concepts of shame and guilt, we understand that even though similar things can elicit them, they have different effects on the way we feel and act. However, is there a difference in how they affect our lives in general?
In the same way that shame and guilt motivate different behaviours, a different approach to empathy has been found; specifically a positive relationship between guilt and empathy. As an example, it has been found that guilt-proneness is related to perspective taking and empathic concern (Joireman, 2004) whereas shame-proneness can predict personal distress. For example, shame is positively related to the tendency to focus on personal distress and not so much on other's distress (Joireman, 2004, Tangney 1991). Furthermore, shame has not only been found to be unrelated to empathic concern but has been associated with impaired emphatic abilities (Tangney, Wagner & Gramzow, 1992). The reason for this different result (from emotions that can be elicited from really similar situations) may be the focus of the emotion. Because shame has a focus on the self, the person's emotions are concentrated in the self and not in others. In contrast, guilt focus on behaviours that affect others, that may be why the reaction is more other-oriented and not as egocentric. Hoffman (1982, as cited in Baumeister et al., 1994) expressed that empathy was essential for guilt, saying that without empathetic distress people would not be able to feel guilt.
Public vs private emotion
The distinction between public and private emotions in shame and guilt is based on the fact that the emotion is felt in private or in public (Tangney et al., 1996). To explain this, Tangney et al. (1994, as cited in Tangney, Stuewig & Mashek, 2007) demonstrated that shame and guilt are experienced in the presence of others, and that shame and guilt also happen at the same rate when the person is alone. The difference that Tangney et al. (1994, as cited in Tangney, Stuewig & Mashek, 2007) found was that when someone experiences shame, he or she are concern with other's evaluations of the self (therefore shame is a public emotion) but when someone experiences guilt they are concern with the effect their actions have on others (guilt being a private emotion).
Research in addiction, specifically in addiction treatment, has shown that shame is an emotional factor constantly mentioned in discussions of treatment (Fossum & Manson, 1986, as cited in Dearing, Stuewig & Tangney, 2005). Flanagan (2013) describes shame as an essential part of addiction but also as a motivation to recover from the addiction itself. He describes the relationship between shame an addiction in two ways: first, the addict feels shame because of his/her addiction cannot reliably do what he/she judges best, and second, the addict feels shame because he/she is missing in his/her life due to the addiction. Flanagan sees shame as so related to addiction that he mentioned that addiction without shame involves abnormal psychiatric conditions, such as schizoid personality disorder. In contrast, guilt-proneness has been found to be inversely correlated to substance use problems (Dearing, Stuewig & Tangney, 2005).
Regarding psychopathology literature, shame has a clear correlation with a lot of different disorders. Research has shown a positive relationship between shame and depression and suicidal tendencies (Wright et al., 1989), PTSD (Andrews et al., 2000), anxiety (Crossley & Rockett, 2005), eating disorders (Troop et al., 2008), narcissism (Gramzow & Tangney, 1992) and social phobia (Orsillo, 1996). The relationship between shame and psychopathology is complicated and different for each disorder. Feelings of shame are challenging to treat where they are deeply involved in psychological symptoms (Tangney, Stuewig & Mashek, 2007).
In contrast, studies done about the relationship between guilt and psychopathology have shown a different picture. When people feel guilt (without shame), they are focusing on a specific situation, and this distinction makes guilt essentially unrelated to psychopathology (Tangney, Stuewig & Mashek, 2007). Research has shown that guilt is unrelated to depression (Wright et al., 1989) and anxiety (Crossley & Rockett, 2005). It is important to notice that all of this results are based on a clear distinction between shame and guilt. When guilt is accompanied by shame, guilt does not function as a constructive motivation (Tangney, Stuewig & Mashek, 2007).
Shame and anger seem to go hand in hand on the literature. It has been found that feelings of shame rise after people express anger and hostility (Lewis, 1971). Furthermore, proneness to shame has been related not only with anger but also with hostility and externalisation of blame (Andrews et al., 2000). People that are shame-prone are more likely to display all types of displaced aggression, express anger intensively and in destructive ways (verbal, physical, symbolic and indirect aggression), as well as self-directed anger (Tangney, Stuewig & Mashek, 2007). In addition to high aggression, shamed people are less likely to engage in constructive and conciliatory behaviour (Tangney, 1995). The reason for this relationship between anger and shame may be in the nature of shame. People thatare feeling ashamed want to scape the situation and acting defensively, blaming others and expressing anger may give some comfort, and the individual may regain a sense of control .
A big difference can be found in the relationship between guilt and anger. People thatfeel guilt but not shame prefer to make amends with constructive behaviours like non-hostile discussion (Tangney, Stuewig & Mashek, 2007). In fact, people that feel guilty are less likely to express anger in any type of aggression (direct, indirect and displaced). This can be explained by their desire to make amends and to restore relationships.
Shame and guilt are both self-conscious emotions; they involve an evaluation of the self. The main difference between these emotions is that shame focuses on the entire self while guilt focuses on a specific behaviour. Based on this difference, shame and guilt produce different motivated actions; when people feel ashamed they want to restore the image of the self, but if it is too risky, people withdraw from the situation. In contrast, guilt motivates people to make amends and to right the wrong. Knowing the difference between shame and guilt can be extremely beneficial. Emotional knowledge usually provides people with more effective strategies to control their emotions, however, if people cannot differentiate between emotions these strategies may not be as effective.
Based on the nature of each emotion, it is clear that shame and guilt affect people's lives in a very different way. On one hand, because the feeling of shame involves a negative evaluation on the self, people tend to pay less attention to other's feelings and more attention to what others think. This has been supported by research that shows a link between shame and lack of empathy. Furthermore, shame has been found to be an essential part of addiction and to be related with other psychological disorders like depression, anxiety, PTSD and eating disorders, as well as being highly associated with anger and all types of aggressive behaviour.
On the other hand, guilt has been found to be unrelated to all of those things. Guilt is a negative emotion in the way it feels but is incredibly adaptive. The motivated actions of guilt involve pro-social behaviour. For example, people thatfeel guilt are less likely to react with anger and more likely to engage in constructive behaviours. It is clear that even though guilt is an unpleasant feeling, it is necessary for good relationships.
- Understanding and managing feelings of shame (Book chapter, 2011)
- Why do we experience guilt, what are its consequences, and how can it be managed? (Book chapter, 2018)
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- Listening to shame (Brene Brown, TED talk)