Shame is one of the most overlooked emotions, at least among individuals residing in Western cultures. Feelings of shame can have a profound effect on one’s level of psychological adjustment and one’s relationships with others, but these feelings nonetheless often go undetected. People rarely speak of their shame experiences. Denial and a desire for concealment are part of the phenomenology of shame itself. People shrink from their own feelings of shame, just as they recoil from others in the midst of a shame experience. To further complicate matters, shame can masquerade as other emotions, hiding behind guilt, lurking behind anger, fueling despair and depression.
People’s tendency to confuse shame with guilt has helped relegate shame to a footnote in psychology’s first century. In professional writings and in everyday conversation, shame and guilt are mentioned in the same breath as emotion synonyms, or (perhaps more often) guilt is used as a catchall term for elements of both emotions. Even the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, rarely distinguished between shame and guilt.
Difference between Shame and Guilt
Numerous psychologists and anthropologists have attempted to differentiate between these moral emotions. Accounts of the difference between shame and guilt fall into three categories: (1) a distinction based on the types of events that give rise to the emotions, (2) a distinction based on the public versus private nature of the transgression, and (3) a distinction based on the degree to which the person views the emotion-eliciting event as a failure of self or behavior.
Theorists who focus on types of events assume that certain kinds of situations lead to shame, whereas other kinds of situations lead to guilt. For example, behaviors that cause harm to others elicit guilt, whereas behaviors that violate social conventions (e.g., burping in public, poor table manners, unusual sexual behavior) elicit shame. Social psychological research, however, indicates that the type of event has surprisingly little to do with the distinction between shame and guilt. When people are asked to describe personal shame and personal guilt experiences, most types of events (e.g., lying, cheating, stealing, sex, failing to help another, disobeying parents) are cited by some people in connection with feelings of shame and by other people in connection with guilt. Some evidence indicates that shame is evoked by a broader range of situations including both moral and nonmoral failures and transgressions (e.g., harming others and violating social conventions) whereas guilt is more specifically linked to transgressions in the moral realm, as traditionally defined. But on balance, the types of situations that cause shame and guilt are remarkably similar.
Another frequently cited distinction between shame and guilt is the long-standing notion that shame is a more public emotion than guilt is, arising from public exposure and disapproval, whereas guilt is a more private experience arising from self-generated pangs of conscience. As it turns out, research has not supported this public-private distinction in terms of the actual characteristics of the emotion-eliciting situation. For example, when researchers analyze people’s descriptions of personal shame and guilt experiences, others are no more likely to be aware of shame-inducing behaviors than of guilt-inducing behaviors.
Where does this notion that shame is a more public emotion come from? Although shame- and guilt-inducing situations are equally public (in the likelihood that others are present and aware of the failure or transgression), people pay attention to different things when they feel shame compared with when they feel guilt. Specifically, when feeling guilt, people are apt to be aware of their effects on others (e.g., how much a careless remark hurt a friend or how much they disappointed their parents). In contrast, when feeling shame, people are more inclined to worry about how others might evaluate them (e.g., whether a friend might think he or she is a jerk, or whether the parents might regard him or her as a failure). In short, when feeling shame people often focus on others’ evaluations, but actual public exposure isn’t any more likely than in the case of guilt.
A third basis for distinguishing between shame and guilt centers on the object of one’s negative evaluation, and this is the distinction most strongly supported by social psychological research. When people feel guilt, they feel badly about a specific behavior. When people feel shame, they feel badly about themselves. Although this differential emphasis on self (“I did that horrible thing”) versus behavior (“I did that horrible thing”) may seem minor, it sets the stage for very different emotional experiences and very different patterns of motivation and subsequent behavior.
Shame is an especially painful emotion because one’s core self, not simply one’s behavior, is the issue. Shame involves a painful scrutiny of the entire self, a feeling that “I am an unworthy, incompetent, or bad person.” People in the midst of a shame experience often report a sense of shrinking, of being small. They feel worthless and powerless. And they feel exposed. Although shame does not necessarily involve an actual observing audience present to witness one’s shortcomings, there is often the imagery of how one’s defective self would appear to others—as unworthy and reprehensible.
Motivations and Behaviors Associated With Shame
Phenomenological studies indicate that shame often motivates avoidance, defensiveness, and denial. People feeling shame often report a desire to flee from the shame-inducing situation, to “sink into the floor and disappear.” Denial of responsibility (or of the behavior itself) is not uncommon. Shamed individuals are motivated to hide their misdeeds and their very selves from others, in an effort to escape the pain of shame. In addition to motivating avoidant behavior, research indicates that shame often prompts externalization blame and anger. During a shame experience, hostility is initially directed inward, toward the self (“I’m such a loser”). But because this entails such a global negative self-assessment, the person in the midst of a shame episode is apt to feel trapped and overwhelmed. As a consequence, shamed people are inclined to become defensive. One way to protect the self, and to regain a sense of control, is to redirect that hostility and blame outward. Rather than accepting responsibility for having hurt a friend’s feelings, for example, a shamed individual is apt to come up with excuses, deny that he or she said anything offensive, and even blame the friend for overreacting or misinterpreting. Not all anger is based in shame, especially irrational rage and anger, seemingly erupting out of the blue, has its roots in underlying feelings of shame.
In the extreme, shame can lead to aggression and violence, with tragic consequences. Clinicians and researchers identify shame as a common element in situations involving domestic violence. During the months leading up to the Columbine killings and other school shootings, the shooters appear to have experienced deep feelings of shame. Collective shame and humiliation has even been cited by historians and political observers in analyses of the causes of ethnic strife, genocide, and international conflict.
Shame and Psychological Symptoms
Researchers consistently report a relationship between shame and whole host of psychological symptoms, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, and suicidal ideation. People who frequently experience shame are at greater risk to develop psychological symptoms, compared with their non-shame-prone peers.
Is Shame Really a Moral Emotion?
Shame is often cited as a moral emotion, caused by violations of important moral or social standards. A widely held assumption is that painful feelings of shame help people avoid doing wrong, decreasing the likelihood of transgression and impropriety. As it turns out, there is surprisingly little evidence of this inhibitory function of shame. Shame is not as effective as guilt in guiding one down a moral path. For example, adults’ self-reported moral behaviors are substantially positively correlated with proneness to guilt but unrelated to proneness to shame. Similarly, children with a well-developed capacity to feel guilt are less likely to be arrested and incarcerated in their teens. Shame-prone children are not so advantaged. Among incarcerated offenders, guilt but not shame is associated with lowers levels of “criminal thinking.” Together with research linking shame to impaired empathy, denial of responsibility, and destructive expressions of anger, there is good reason to question the moral self-regulatory function of shame.
Adaptive Functions of Shame
The theory and research reviewed thus far has emphasized the dark side of shame, underscoring its negative consequences for psychological adjustment and for interpersonal behavior. Why, then, do people have the capacity to experience this emotion? What adaptive purpose might it serve?”
Psychologists taking a sociobiological approach have focused on the appeasement functions of shame. In the social hierarchy of apes, shame serves as an important signal to dominant apes that lower ranked animals recognize their place. Submissive, shame-like reactions (hunched posture, downcast eyes) reaffirm the social hierarchy and seem to diffuse aggressive interactions. Dominant apes are much less likely to attack subordinate apes when subordinates signal submission in this way. At earlier stages of human evolution, shame likely served similar functions. It has also been suggested that the motivation to withdraw, so often a component of the shame experience, may be useful in interrupting potentially threatening social interactions until the shamed individual has a chance to regroup. Overall, the weight of scientific evidence indicates that guilt is the more moral, adaptive response to sins and transgressions in a contemporary human society that is more egalitarian than hierarchical in structure.
- Tangney, J. P. (1990). Assessing individual differences in proneness to shame and guilt: Development of the Self-Conscious Affect and Attribution Inventory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 102-111.
- Tangney, J. P., Miller, R. S., Flicker, L., & Barlow, D. H. (1996). Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1256-1269.