Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Shame, guilt, and recidivism

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Shame, guilt, and recidivism:
What role do shame and guilt play in recidivism?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Case study

A young boy punches one of his peers at school one day and is put into timeout as punishment. The following week, he smacks another peer and when his teacher threatens to put him in timeout again, he cries and says he doesn’t want to be in trouble again, declaring he ‘hated being in timeout’. The teacher then asks him: “Why did you smack another student then? Didn’t you learn the first time?”.

Figure 1. An example of an individual being arrested after engaging in criminal activity.

Much like how the boy’s teacher asks why he repeated his actions despite the consequences, may people often wonder ‘why do offenders re-offend after facing penalties?’. This is a question that has captivated the interest of psychologists and the general public alike, and for good reason. With penalties such as jail time, costly fines and social condemnation (Apel & Diller, 2016), many can’t understand why anyone would engage in behaviour that would once again result in ending up in cuffs as depicted in Figure 1.

The tendency to re-offend is referred to as recidivism and it occurs rather frequently, with international averages represented in Table 1 (Yukhnenko et al., 2019). Given the high rate of recidivism, psychology has engendered a focus on understanding the driving forces behind re-offending.

Table 1.

Average Range of Recidivism Rates Across 23 Countries

Re-arrest rates Reconviction rates Reimprisonment rates
Range 26% - 60% 20% - 63% 14% - 45%

While several theories and concepts have been used in an attempt to explain this tendency, a recurring theme that has engrossed many researchers is the notable role of shame and guilt (Wallace & Wang, 2020). This brings the focus to the pertinent question of ‘what role do shame and guilt play in recidivism?’.

With this question in mind, this chapter seeks to explain several concepts, including
  • How shame and guilt are defined within psychology
  • How shame and guilt predict later recidivism
  • The role of shame and guilt in the context of culture

How are shame and guilt defined in psychology?[edit | edit source]

Shame and guilt are often confused as synonymous concepts but research has indicated this is not the case. While the concepts are similar, they have been found to exist independently and are experienced significantly differently (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2018).

Guilt is the negative affect experienced after experiencing morally wrong behaviours, with individuals taking personal responsibility and feeling remorse for said behaviour (Brooke, 1985). This behaviour need not be extreme to feel guilt, evidenced by the overwhelming guilt many pet owners experience after stepping on their beloved pet’s paw. However, the opposite is also true. Simply, the degree of guilt felt is contingent on the morals of the individual.

Shame is characterised by distress as a direct result of indecent, embarrassing or inappropriate behaviour (Gibson, 2018), but does not necessarily result in the assumption of responsibility (Smith et al., 2002). Shame generally tends to result in negative social evaluation of the self (Hooge et al., 2018). An example of shame is an individual being embarrassed by their actions while drunk.

Now these concepts have been clearly defined, the question "how do shame and guilt predict recidivism?" can be addressed. The following sections explain the individual roles of each emotion as motivating forces or protective factors of recidivism.

1 Which is the best example of guilt?

Feeling deep sadness as a result of seeing others misfortune
Being embarrassed because you were caught stealing
Feeling terrible because you smashed your mother's prized vase
None of these answers are correct
All of these answers are correct

2 Who would be the most likely to feel shame?

Samuel, who has just come second in a race.
Sarah, who has failed an exam she told everyone she would definitely pass
Jim, who realised he wore his shirt inside out all day
Morgan, who forgot to put the washing on the line as per her mother's request
None of these answers are correct

How does shame predict recidivism?[edit | edit source]

Shame is often associated with feelings of worthlessness and exposure, and overall lacks adaptive functions (Tangney et al., 2007). As such, it is no surprise that shame is frequently associated with higher rates of recidivism (Tangney et al., 2014). Several theories and studies have sought to understand how shame predicts recidivism.

Figure 2. An example of how an individual may respond to the criminal behaviours of a friend within the framework of Braithwaite's 1989 theory of reintegrative shaming.

Theory of reintegrative shaming[edit | edit source]

Perhaps the closest thing to a grand theory in the field of recidivism, Braithwaite’s 1989 theory of reintegrative shaming proposes societal responses to crime influence criminal activity and extends to recidivism. Braithwaite proposes two forms of shaming, with each form resulting in a different outcome on later recidivism: stigmatisation and reintegrative shaming.

Stigmatisation views the offender as a bad person who has done a bad thing, whereas reintegrative shaming views the offender as a good person who has done a bad thing. Braithwaite proposes forgiving and respectful societies will experience lower recidivism, whereas societies that degrade and humiliate offenders will experience higher rates (Braithwaite, 1989).

A study investigated the role of reintegrative shaming on recidivism on participants who exceeded the legal blood alcohol content. Participants were involved in restorative justice conferences utilising the principles of reintegrative shaming instead of facing punishment. Repeated conferences were negatively associated with recidivism, and conferences that were less focused on reintegrative shaming principles were positively associated (Tyler et al., 2007). Further research found similar results.

A study that investigated individuals punished by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) for engaging in tax avoidance schemes found that those who felt the ATO took a reintegrative approach towards their offences were less likely to be instigated in later schemes, and the opposite was true for those who felt they were approached in a stigmatising way (Murphy & Harris, 2007). These findings not only support Braithwaite’s theory of lower recidivism associated with reintegrative shaming, but also support that stigmatisation may be correlated with higher recidivism.

However, it is important to note Braithwaite’s theory fails to incorporate different cultures, and lacks an operationalised measure of shame. As such, this theory is incapable of being a grand theory of recidivism. However, this theory is perhaps one of the most widely explored and supported theories of shame and recidivism.

Consider this

Your friend admits to you that she stole from an elderly man for fun. Refer to Figure 2, to see the different approaches you could take using Braithwaite's (1989) theory of reintegrative shaming.

What has further research found?[edit | edit source]

The majority of research in this field focuses on Braithwaite’s theory, with very little research deviating from the theory. This is thought to be the result of inconsistent measures and a lack of an operational definition of shame (Macey, 2017). However, some significant research has consisted of various concepts of shame and its influence on recidivism.

Firstly, shame has been found to be far less functional than guilt, as it lacks a course of reparative actions to aid in the alleviation of the feeling. Instead, research has suggested dysfunctional behaviours are frequently correlated with shame such as anger, blame externalisation, or social withdrawal (Stuewig et al., 2010).

Blame externalisation occurs when the individual adopts an external locus of control for their behaviour, resulting in a lack of accountability for their actions. This can become incredibly problematic, given that this can result in the individual feeling they are not at fault or have been wrongfully punished. Hence, these individuals may not engage in the necessary learning and growth opportunities which can prevent later recidivism (Tangney et al., 2014).

Social withdrawal has also been implicated, resulting in a lack of a support system and recidivistic behaviour (Schnappauf & DiDonato, 2017). Braithwaite investigated this effect, finding the biggest concern of arrested youth was the response of significant others in their lives, and suggested a family approach to reintegrative shaming (Braithwaite, 1996). This model ultimately suggests that inappropriate or a lack of social support from significant others can result in more intense shame, thus resulting in potential recidivism.

Concluding notes on shame[edit | edit source]

Shame is a complicated facet associated with recidivism, with several studies seeking to explain why. The experience of negative regard and stigmatisation after offending can result in an offender feeling increased shame, which has several consequences and ultimately has the potential for later recidivism. However, it is important to consider that a respectful approach to shame can alleviate these feelings and reduce the recidivism risk. A lack of operational definitions and consistent measures have limited the extent of this field of research, thus requiring further investigation to come to a comprehensive and culturally significant understanding of the relationship between shame and recidivism.  

How does guilt predict recidivism?[edit | edit source]

Guilt has been identified as highly adaptive and has been implicated in acting as a protective factor against recidivism. This is the result of adaptive functioning, prosocial behaviour and the separation of the self and the action. As individuals seek to alleviate their feelings of guilt, they engage in various activities that prevent recidivism.

The adaptive functions of guilt[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Examples of how an individual could utilise the adaptive functions of guilt as proposed by Tangney (2007) after damaging their friend's car.

There are several restorative actions proposed to alleviate guilt, which takes the form of apologising, confessing, undoing, and/or repairing of behaviour (Tangney et al., 1996). In the example of stepping on an animal’s paw, the culprit might apologise profusely or attempt to repair the behaviour by giving them a treat, ultimately alleviating the guilty feeling. Several studies have sought to understand this effect, generally supporting the role of these actions in avoiding recidivism.

Research instead suggests creative punishments which are tailored to the crime minimise shame and foster guilt, and as such, should become the norm. This approach confronts the individual with their actions and stimulates understanding, empathy and solutions to avoid recidivism (Tangney et al., 2011). This is associated with and supports the adaptive function of repairing of behaviour.

The Dobby effect, developed in response to the guilt-induced behaviours of the lovable house-elf from Harry Potter, suggests individuals feeling guilt can engage in self-punishment to alleviate the feeling (Nelissen & Zeelenberg, 2009). This effect has been supported, finding a correlation between high levels of guilt and frequent self-punishment, which is thought to act as a form of redemption (Nelissen, 2011). This links into Tangney’s adaptive function of apologising, and as such, may act as a protective factor against recidivism. However, further research is required to understand the extent of this effect in recidivism.

Consider this

Your friend lets you borrow his prized car for the day. However, you dent the front of the car. See Figure 3, for the ways you could utilise Tangney's (2007) adaptive functions to alleviate the guilt.

Prosocial behaviour[edit | edit source]

Guilt has a consistent link with helping behaviours, with research those who are experiencing or anticipating guilt are far more likely to help others as compared to non-guilt individuals (Lindsey, 2005; Regan et al., 1972). This is likely associated with adaptive functions of guilt, and as such, suggests prosocial behaviour as a result of guilt may solidify the notion that the individual is separate from their behaviour and is a good person who has done a bad thing. This may act as a useful function to avoid guilt developing into shame and prevent recidivism, and it supports the aforementioned research of tailored punishments.

Lack of guilt[edit | edit source]

Individuals with dysfunctional self-conscious emotions, particularly guilt, have been found to show behaviours associated with aggression, personality disorders, depression, and  externalising symptoms, all of which have been associated with recidivism (Muris, 2015). This suggests guilt acts as a protective factor against these issues, and hence can be associated with lesser recidivism. Similar results were found in a study investigating the dimensions of callous-unemotional (CU) traits, primarily composed of lack of guilt and shallow affect. The results found those who scored high on CU measures re-offended sooner than those who scored lower (Kimonis et al., 2016). These results have been echoed in other studies (See Lawing, 2011; Trivedi-Bateman, 2014), strongly implicating lack of guilt contributes to recidivism.

Concluding notes on guilt[edit | edit source]

Guilt’s adaptive functions act as a protective and restorative factor against recidivism, meaning utilising these functions can alleviate the feeling and be linked to prosocial behaviour. This behaviour has similarly been found to be negatively associated with recidivism, suggesting post-offending programs should consider how these effects can be utilised. A lack of guilt has been positively associated with recidivism, further exemplifying the argument of the protective factor of guilt. Ultimately, guilt appears to have a constructive potential which helps separate the individual from the crime and prevent recidivistic tendencies.

The interaction of shame and guilt in recidivism[edit | edit source]

Extensive research has investigated shame and guilt as independent functions, with a general consensus of shame is a predictor of recidivism as a result of a lack of adaptive function and opportunities for redemption. Conversely, guilt is viewed as a protective factor against recidivism, primarily for having opportunities and functions that shame lacks. While strong evidence supports both effects independently, these emotions also need to be mutually considered.

Shame- and guilt-proneness[edit | edit source]

Research has implicated guilt-proneness as a protective factor against recidivism with significant research implicating a negative correlation between guilt-proneness and recidivism, and a positive correlation with constructive emotions and behaviours (Tangney, 2007). These results have held true in non-criminal contexts, with a study finding those high in guilt-proneness experienced significantly more guilt when absent from work and were less likely to engage in continued absenteeism as compared to their less guilt-prone peers (Schaumberg & Flynn, 2017).

In contrast, shame-proneness has an inconsistent link to recidivism, perhaps reflecting its complexity. Some research has found a link between shame-proneness and blame externalisation (Tangney et al., 2007) which has been discussed as a predictor of recidivism in the shame section of this chapter. However, other research has found no significant link between the two (Harris, 2017), and as such, further research is required in order to understand the interaction.

Shame, guilt and prison[edit | edit source]

A longitudinal study, which repeatedly interviewed close to 1,250 prisoners, investigated how shame and guilt experienced during sentencing predicted recidivism. Those who experienced higher guilt had significantly lower recidivism rates, while those with higher levels of shame had higher rates of recidivism (Hosser et al., 2008). This further supports the concept of the motivating force of shame and protective factor of guilt. However, there are several considerations of this study, such as the fact that prisons do not necessarily allow for reintegrative shaming and instead fosters stigmatisation, suggesting prisons may ultimately increase shame and hence, recidivism. Given this, research outside of prison environments needs to be explored.

Interestingly, a study investigating young deviants who were not sentenced to prison or juvenile detention found that the anticipation of shame and guilt was enough to prevent recidivistic behaviours. The research suggests that experiences of shame outside of prison environments often reflect Braithwaite’s proposed reintegrative shaming, and thus act as a protective factor against recidivism, in conjunction with guilt (Svensson et al,. 2013). While these findings need further research for support, this implicates that prison environments foster destructive forms of guilt and reduce feelings of guilt, thus resulting in recidivism.

Concluding notes on the interaction[edit | edit source]

Guilt has constructive potential, and this has been extensively supported throughout research. It acts as a protective factor against recidivism, and has several components that promote various adaptive functions and prosocial behaviour. Guilt-proneness has been associated with lower recidivistic tendencies in and out of criminal contexts. In contrast shame, if utilised incorrectly, has destructive potential. This is the result of a lack of adaptive functioning and the often stigmatisation approach many regard offenders with, and this has a relationship with recidivism.

What are the roles of shame and guilt in cultural contexts?[edit | edit source]

Shame, guilt and recidivism have been almost exclusively investigated within western cultures, and Braithwaite’s theory, perhaps the most important shame theory, lacks any cross-cultural applications. Given that there are cultural differences in emotional experiences (Lim, 2016), this is a field that requires cultural considerations.

Japan has been heralded as a perfect example of restorative justice. Familial support vastly outweighs state-intervention in Japanese offender populations, which results in individuals receiving an integrative approach and more intense feelings of remorse (Sakiyama et al., 2011), supporting Braithwaite’s family model of shaming. However, in 2018, Japan had a recidivism rate of 48.0% (Kishi et al., 2018). However, this does not necessarily indicate a lack of cross-cultural applications, as this high rate does not appear to be entirely linked to criminally-driven motives, but instead of necessity. The elderly population is found to have the highest recidivism rates, as prison is viewed as a way to avoid economic strife (Lewis, 2016). This increases the need for a cross-cultural understanding of shame. Furthermore, very little research focuses on guilt, and as such, no relationship between guilt and recidivism can be made.

In contrast to Japan, Hong Kong has a stigmatisation approach to offenders (Vagg, 1998). Curiously, the recidivism rate is almost half of Japan at 24.8% (The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, 2019). However, it is uncertain if this is the result of strict punishments enforced in Hong Kong (Jiang & Fu, 2018), or if this suggests a stigmatisation approach is more useful in some cultures than in others. Once again, little research consists of guilt in a cultural context.

This cultural disparity is important to acknowledge, as this is more or less the extent of conclusive research in this field. Further research needs to consider the cultural effects of shame and guilt in influencing recidivism, as well as investigate the concepts of Braithwaite's theory in cultural contexts.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Recidivism remains a highly prevalent topic in psychology, with explanations widespread and mostly inconclusive. However, in consideration of the numerous studies and theories surrounding the relationship between shame, guilt and recidivism, a clear explanation of these roles is highlighted.

Guilt has been implicated as a highly adaptive function, with those experiencing it responding in prosocial ways to redeem themselves from their actions. The effects and benefits of guilt are vast, and this is especially highlighted when considering the consequences of a lack of guilt. These components of guilt contribute to an overall positive outcome of guilt, with most research synonymously suggesting guilt is a strong protective factor against recidivism.

In contrast, shame is shown as a highly complex emotion which can be approached by society in one of two ways. If approached with a respectful and integrative approach, shame tends to have a negative association with recidivism. However, the majority of research suggests the most common approach to shaming is stigmatisation. This has been found to be linked with various consequences such as anger and blame externalisation. As such, shame has mostly been identified as a predictor of later recidivism.  

There are limitations in this field of study. There is a lack of clearly defined measures and definitions, and the majority of the research is focused on prison populations. This is a clear issue, given the inconsistent results of studies undertaken outside of prison. Furthermore, the significant cultural disparity requires addressing, as little is understood about recidivism in cultural contexts. Research in this area should consider how such cultural understandings will improve research of recidivism and create a more globalised and valid approach.

Ultimately, the defining message of this research suggests that guilt has a constructive potential for offenders to avoid recidivistic behaviours. In contrast, shame, especially in stigmatising contexts has destructive potential.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Apel, A., & Diller, J. (2016). Prison as punishment: A behavior-analytic evaluation of incarceration. The Behavior Analyst, 40(1), 243-256.

Braithwaite, J. (1989). Crime, shame, and reintegration. Cambridge University Press.

Braithwaite, J. (1996). Criminological perspectives: A reader (pp. 432-438). Sage Publications.

Brooke, R. (1985). What is guilt? Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 16(2), 31-46.

de Hooge, I., Breugelmans, S., Wagemans, F., & Zeelenberg, M. (2018). The social side of shame: approach versus withdrawal. Cognition and Emotion, 32(8), 1671-1677.

Gibson, M. (2018). A pragmatic investigation into the emotions of pride, shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment: Lived experience and the challenge to established theory. Social Science Information, 57(4), 616-643.

Hosser, D., Windzio, M., & Greve, W. (2008). Guilt and shame as predictors of recidivism. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(1), 138-152.

Harris, N. (2017). Shame in regulatory settings. In P. Drahos, Regulatory theory: Foundations and applications (pp. 59-76). ANU Press.

Jiang, N., & Fu, Y. (2018). Reasons for harsh punishments in China. Journal of Civil and Legal Services, 7(2).

Kimonis, E., Kennealy, P., & Goulter, N. (2016). Does the self-report inventory of callous-unemotional traits predict recidivism? Psychological Assessment, 28(12), 1616-1624.

Kishi, K., Suzuki, J., Monma, T., Asanuma, T., & Takeda, F. (2018). Psychosocial and criminological factors related to recidivism among Japanese criminals at offender rehabilitation facilities. Cogent Social Sciences, 4(1).

Lawing, S. (2011). Predictors of recidivism in adolescent offenders (Ph.D). University of New Orleans.

Lewis, L. (2016). Japan’s elderly turn to life of crime to ease cost of living. CNBC.

Lim, N. (2016). Cultural differences in emotion: differences in emotional arousal level between the East and the West. Integrative Medicine Research, 5(2), 105-109.

Lindsey, L. (2005). Anticipated guilt as behavioral motivation: An examination of appeals to help unknown others through bone marrow donation. Human Communication Research, 31(4), 453-481.

Macey, E. (2017). An investigation of shame in forensic populations (Ph.D). The University of Edinburgh.

Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2018). Reconsidering the differences between shame and guilt. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 14(3), 710-733.

Murphy, K., & Harris, N. (2007). Shaming, shame and recidivism: A Test of Reintegrative Shaming Theory in the White-Collar Crime Context. British Journal of Criminology, 47(6), 900-917.

Muris, P. (2014). Guilt, shame, and psychopathology in children and adolescents. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 46(2), 177-179.

Nelissen, R. (2011). Guilt-induced self-punishment as a sign of remorse. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 139-144.

Nelissen, R., & Zeelenberg, M. (2009). When guilt evokes self-punishment: Evidence for the existence of a Dobby effect. Emotion, 9(1), 118-122.

Regan, D., Williams, M., & Sparling, S. (1972). Voluntary expiation of guilt: A field experiment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(1), 42-45.

Sakiyama, M., Lu, H., & Liang, B. (2011). Reintegrative shaming and juvenile delinquency in Japan. Asian Journal of Criminology, 6(2), 161-175.

Schaumberg, R., & Flynn, F. (2017). Clarifying the link between job satisfaction and absenteeism: The role of guilt proneness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(6), 982-992.

Schnappauf, E., & DiDonato, T. (2017). From solitary to solidarity: Belonging, social support, and the problem of women’s recidivism. Modern Psychological Studies, 23(1).

Smith, R., Webster, J., Parrott, W., & Eyre, H. (2002). The role of public exposure in moral and nonmoral shame and guilt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(1), 138-159.

Stuewig, J., Tangney, J., Heigel, C., Harty, L., & McCloskey, L. (2010). Shaming, blaming, and maiming: Functional links among the moral emotions, externalization of blame, and aggression. Journal of Research in Personality, 44(1), 91-102.

Svensson, R., Weerman, F., Pauwels, L., Bruinsma, G., & Bernasco, W. (2013). Moral emotions and offending: Do feelings of anticipated shame and guilt mediate the effect of socialization on offending? European Journal of Criminology, 10(1), 22-39.

Tangney, J., Miller, R., Flicker, L., & Barlow, D. (1996). Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1256-1269.

Tangney, J., Stuewig, J., & Hafez, L. (2011). Shame, guilt, and remorse: Implications for offender populations. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology, 22(5), 706-723.

Tangney, J., Stuewig, J., & Martinez, A. (2014). Two faces of shame. Psychological Science, 25(3), 799-805.

Tangney, J., Stuewig, J., & Mashek, D. (2007). Moral emotions and moral behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 58(1), 345-372.

Tangney, J., Stuewig, J., Mashek, D., & Hastings, M. (2011). Assessing jail inmates’ proneness to shame and guilt: Feeling bad about the behavior or the self? Criminal Justice and Behavior, 38(7), 710-734.

The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. (2019). LCQ16: Recidivism rate of discharged prisoners.

Trivedi-Bateman, N. (2014). The roles of empathy, shame, and guilt in violence decision-making (Ph.D). Darwin College.

Tyler, T., Sherman, L., Strang, H., Barnes, G., & Woods, D. (2007). Reintegrative shaming, procedural justice, and recidivism: The engagement of offenders' psychological mechanisms in the Canberra rise drinking-and-driving experiment. Law and Society Review, 41(3), 553-586.

Vagg, J. (1998). Delinquency and shame: Data from Hong Kong. British Journal of Criminology, 38(2), 247-264.

Wallace, D., & Wang, X. (2020). Does in-prison physical and mental health impact recidivism? SSM - Population Health, 11,

Yukhnenko, D., Sridhar, S., & Fazel, S. (2019). A systematic review of criminal recidivism rates worldwide: 3-year update. Wellcome Open Research, 4, 28.

External links[edit | edit source]