I hope it does not reflect their IQ, but far too many denizens of the therapy culture have cranked up their minds and concluded that shame is bad and that guilt is good.
They are right in part. It is bad to feel shame.
But, while guilt is the right emotion when you have committed or thought to commit a crime, it is hardly transformative. The honor belongs to shame.
Some therapists believe that guilt is more likely to provoke a change in behavior than is shame. If this were true, psychoanalysis would be far more effective than cognitive and behavioral therapies. Since we know that the opposite is the case, this judgment should be dismissed as so much junk thought.
There is one way to avoid shame.
You keep your pants on. You behave with dignity, propriety, decorum and responsibility. If you make these habitual, you will have shielded yourself from shame.
If you prefer not to avoid shame, you have other options.
You can drop your pants and demand to be praised for your candor. It doesn’t make any sense, but some people make it a point of pride to show off their shamelessness, that is, their lack of pride.
Also, if, upon getting caught with your pants down, you do not immediately pull them up, you can numb yourself to the shame by denouncing those who would judge you ill for your shamelessness.
With guilt, there is one basic way to reduce it. You accept punishment.
Since guilt is an anticipation of punishment for a transgression or crime, you dissipate it with one or another form of punishment, with penance or self-criticism or even self-flagellation.
To each his own.
Now behavioral economists have come to believe that the threat of punishment is a great motivator. One questions their use of the notion of punishment here. True enough, sanctions matter. Shame is a sanction. Guilt anticipates a different kind of sanction.
Thus, we will want to know what sanction they have in mind.
I question the use of the term punishment, largely because it is most often associated with guilt, not shame. When Peter Ubel reports on the latest experiments, he is not showing outcomes that involve punishment. The sanction that applies when someone fails to fulfill a commitment is shame.
Since guilt ensues when you break a law, not when you fail to fulfill a commitment. If you do not show up for dinner on time or do not hand in an assignment when it is due, you do not feel guilt; you are embarrassed. Embarrassment is a mild form of shame.
The issue applies directly to the question of motivation. The studies suggest that you are more motivated to complete a task when you have promised someone else that you would do so.
If you take it out of your mind and put it into a conversation with another individual you will be more motivated. Presumably, you are more concerned with the way you look to the other person than with the way you feel about yourself.
Your willpower, however strong it is, does not motivate as well as your wish to be seen as the kind of person who keeps his or her word.
The wish to avoid shame will propel you to complete a task. Guilt feelings will make you self-absorbed.
According to the researchers, you are more motivated when you make what they call a pre-commitment. Here again the vocabulary is misleading. When you promise someone that you will hand in a paper, you have made a commitment, not a pre-commitment. You have given your word. You have pledged something.
If you fail to complete the assignment on time you will feel shame. If you complete it on time you will feel pride.
For the record, the primary motivation might be to feel pride, even more than the fear of shame.
My caveats notwithstanding, we can understand well what Peter Ubel reports:
But [Prof. Janet] Schwartz’s unusual enticement recognized that people will adopt precommitment strategies when they recognize the desirability of a goal but believe that their will power will not, absent the threat of punishment, be strong enough to resist temptation. Graduate students employ precommitment devices when they promise their mentors that they will bring a draft of the paper to next Tuesday’s meeting, thus facing potential shame if the draft is not delivered on time. And millions of Americans use it when they commit to having income tax withheld from their paychecks throughout the year, in order to receive a large refund after April 15th. The idea behind these precommitment strategies is simple: if the harms of a behavior are not enough to motivate you to change your ways, then you can opt to add to those harms.
I would only qualify this conclusion in one sense. People are not motivated by the fear of shame as much as they are by the more positive wish to affirm their good character.