Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What Is the Difference Between Shame and Guilt?

For decades now sociologists and psychologists have worked to distinguish shame and guilt. My own book on the topic, "Saving Face" is pictured at the left of this blog.

Yet, there is still confusion. Researchers who should know better continue to promote the value of guilt while condemning shame. In the old days we used to say that they were guilt-tripping us.

I was reminded of this by John Tierney's article, "Guilt and Atonement on the Path to Adulthood." Link here.

Reporting on research that seemed to discover that children with a sense of guilt tended to have more impulse control, Tierney wrote that researcher June Tangney told him that it was most important to distinguish between shame and guilt.

Tierney summarized her view: "Shame, the feeling that you are the bad person because of bad behavior, has repeatedly been found to be unhealthy, she says, whereas guilty feelings focused on the behavior itself can be productive."

This is so far afield that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Shame has nothing to do with being a bad person. When a person has a sense of shame he is basically a good person. When a good person makes a mistake he feels shame, because his action is precisely not a reflection of his character.

When he feels shame, he offers an apology. If he does so the mistake is normally forgiven and he has reasserted his good character. In situations where the mistake is grievous-- a CEO who leads his company to a significant loss-- the apology is often accompanied by a withdrawal from society.

Shame involves a temporary separation from one's group. The punishment for the kind of failure that causes shame is ostracism.

People feel shame when they fail to uphold their duties and responsibilities. When you fail to do what you are supposed to do... as a responsible member of the community, as a trustworthy friend, as a loyal colleague... you should feel shame.

Shame concerns prescribed good behaviors, the positive gestures you make towards other people.
Guilt concerns prohibited behaviors.

And after all, if shame is as harmful as June Tangney thinks, would she also agree that shamelessness is a consummate virtue.

The times when someone's mistake becomes a reflection on his character are those when he fails to feel shame and fails to apologize. When that happens, then the actions can properly be considered to be intrinsic to the person's character.

Of course, the researchers are so confused that they believe that guilt can be overcome by an apology and by making amends. Guilt lands you in prison; shame lands you before the cameras apologizing to the world.

Examine the experiment they conducted. They offered a toy to a toddler. The toy was rigged to break apart as soon as the toddler touched it. (As many commenters noted, the researchers had no compunctions about traumatizing toddlers.)

Here is the way Tierney described the toddlers' reactions: "...the toddlers squirmed, avoided the experimenter's gaze, hunched their shoulders, hugged themselves and covered their faces with their hands."

Perhaps the researchers did not know that shame is classically defined as the loss of face. Obviously, the term, most commonly used on China, derives from real experience. When a toddler covers his face and avoids the gaze of others, he is experiencing a shame reaction, not a guilt reaction.

Guilt does not involve failing to do the right thing-- failing to send a thank you note, failing to be polite and courteous, failing to show up for an appointment. Guilt occurs when we break the law, violate a rule, trespass... do something that is expressly forbidden.

If you are given a toy to safeguard and the toy breaks, for whatever reason, you feel shame because you failed your responsibility.

You should feel guilt for committing crimes, for eating the forbidden fruit, for entertaining sinful wishes. Guilt involves punishment. Most serious theories of guilt describe it as the anxiety one feels when one is expecting punishment.

When you have committed a crime and are found guilty, you have to pay for it, with your time, your money, or even, your life. When the transgression does not rise to the level of breaking the law, when it merely involves sin, you overcome the guilt by punishing yourself... by atoning or by doing penance. And those are not the same as apologizing, making amends, and retiring from public life.

Self-criticism can be performed very well when you are alone. An apology is a public and ritual action performed in front of another person.

Atonement and penance often involve bodily punishment. They can involve a number of activities from fasting to self-flagellation. The psychological versions are self-criticism and self-deprecation.

If shame impels people to do the right thing-- the better to avoid shame-- guilt shows them how to control the impulse to break the laws and to transgress.

The researchers have an impoverished view of what constitutes adult behavior. They seem to believe that adult behavior is merely characterized by impulse control.

But we should know by now that unless you want to consumed by a mental drama where your impulses are constantly at war with your fear of punishment, you would do better to learn how to practice the good behaviors that make you the kind of person who is not constantly tempted to transgress.

As for the toddlers, the ones who had a budding sense of shame-- mistaken for guilt by the researchers-- grew up to have better impulse control. Perhaps that was because they had a better sense of what it meant to do the right thing.


Anonymous said...

From a layman:

Guilt is knowing you did something wrong.

Shame is feeling bad about it.

Remorse is wishing you hadn't done it.

Atonement is making amends for it.

ALL of them are healthy.
ALL of them are expected when a decent person does something wrong, intentionally or otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I thought that in the toy experiment the child was told not to touch the toy because it was precious to the owner. In this case the child does break a rule. But if the child was told to safeguard it then it's more compicated indeed.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

It's a bit like an executive who embezzles from his company. On the one hand he has stolen something that does not belong to him, and thus is guilty of a crime. On the other hand he has failed to fulfill his responsibility to the company.