NPR’s Morning Edition today featured a story about a belated Japanese apology for the mistreatment of American prisoners of war during World War II. But the apology was not from the Japanese government, nor was it from all of the many large Japanese corporations that had used American POWs as slave labor during the war.  Only the head of Mitsubishi Materials had the courage to expose his company to the “eternal shame” of admitting what his predecessors had done, and his representative could only do it in a private meeting with the few surviving POWs.  What NPR did not explain is that Japan is a “shame culture;” its morality only recognizes shame and it has no concept of guilt.

Even in our own culture, “shame” and “guilt” are often treated as synonymous, and no distinction is made. But when the distinction is made, “guilt” is used to refer to responsibility for a specific immoral act, and “shame” is seen as resulting from the belief that there is an inner corruption of the self. It is the latter that the Japanese avoid admitting at nearly all costs.  The concept of guilt, by contrast, is one of the strengths of our culture.  A review of psychological research on these issues found that:

One of the consistent themes emerging from empirical research is that shame and guilt are not equally “moral” emotions. On balance, guilt appears to be the more adaptive emotion, benefiting individuals and their relationships in a variety of ways, but there is growing evidence that shame is a moral emotion that can easily go awry….On the one hand, shame corresponds with attempts to deny, hide, or escape the shame-inducing situation…. Guilt, on the other hand, corresponds with reparative actions including confessions, apologies, and undoing the consequences of the behavior. (1)

Guilt is often associated with empathy for the feelings of the person harmed, whereas shame often leads to anger and blaming of other people and therefore to verbal and physical aggression. People who are prone to feel guilt are less likely to be violent or delinquent or to commit criminal behavior.  They also experience less psychological distress.  The review reveals that:

Research over the past two decades consistently indicates that proneness to shame is related to a wide variety of psychological symptoms. These run the gamut from low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety to eating disorder symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation…Numerous independent studies converge: guilt-prone children, adolescents, and adults are not at increased risk for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, etc. (2)

I am exhibit A for the negative consequences of shame, although my ability to write these blog posts indicates that I have overcome at least some of them. But the information about guilt surprised me. It clearly disproves the hypotheses about guilt that I proposed in my second blog post. However, it also shows that guilt cannot be imposed from above.  It must be felt sincerely in recognizing the consequences of one’s actions.  It can be taught to a child only by encouraging the child to think through those consequences, especially for other people.

Footnotes:

1. Tangney, Steuwig, and Mashek, “Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior,” Annual Review of Psychology, 2007.

2. Ibid.

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Comment by Homer Edward Price on June 14, 2018 at 2:23pm

The research found that there are many Americans of all ages who feel guilt about specific offenses against other people but feel no shame about their inner selves.  

I also agree with Loren, and what I have been trying to do in all of my blog posts is:

"to reclaim those terms from the misuse and abuse which they have had at the hands of religion."

Comment by Frankie Dapper on June 14, 2018 at 1:39pm

agreed Loren...it happens in society at large also but much of the shame/guilt oozes from the churches and stains us all...except for the little nudists for whom i have a grudging admiration...

Comment by Loren Miller on June 14, 2018 at 1:02pm

Whatever "virtues" guilt and shame may be alleged to have, the fact remains that both have, like so many other concepts, been co-opted by religion as a means of control.  This is particularly reflected in the "born in sin" trope which they press into service so often and which Christopher Hitchens repeatedly called them on during his lifetime.  If GENUINE guilt or GENUINE shame are to have any meaning or impact, they should be associated with GENUINE wrongdoing and not some imagined crap which some specious holy book creates out of whole cloth.  One of the first things we have to do is to reclaim those terms from the misuse and abuse which they have had at the hands of religion.  I mean, I feel no guilt about "original sin," nor do I feel ashamed of my nature as a human being, but some preacher pounding on his bible from his pulpit would have me swallow that and entirely too much else, so that he can leverage money out of me along with a false sense of indebtedness, on top of the shame and guilt.

If I have little regard for shame or guilt as motivators in any sense, a good portion of the blame can be laid at the feet of the First Estate.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on June 14, 2018 at 11:56am

You have moved the goal posts. 

In so doing conceded shame and guilt are inextricably linked...

Comment by Homer Edward Price on June 14, 2018 at 10:45am

Let me add another quotation from "Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior":

The advantages of guilt are lost when a person’s guilt experience (“Oh, look at what a horrible thing I have done”) is magnified and generalized to the self (“ and aren’t I a horrible person”).

Thus, guilt with an overlay of shame is most likely the source of the painful self-castigation and rumination so often described in the clinical literature. In contrast, there are typically a multitude of paths to redemption in the case of uncomplicated guilt focused on a specific behavior. A person (a) often has the option of changing the objectionable behavior; (b) or even better yet, has an opportunity to repair the negative consequences; (c) or at the very least, can extend a heartfelt apology. And when it is not possible to make these external amends, one can resolve to do better in the future.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on June 13, 2018 at 9:12pm

Interesting topic...one i aint given much thought but it strikes me that those who experience guilt do sustain psychological damage. And the greater the empathy of the guilt-ridden combined with sense of personal responsibility for some other's misfortune the greater the psychological damage.  Contrast the aforementioned with say Palestinian suicide bombers (were they to live or prior to causing death) having dehumanized their victims and therefore not having empathy will sustain little or no psychological damage. 

Same dynamic for say Japanese soldiers in Nanking who raped and raped and chopped off heads for sport. No doubt there were some soldiers who acted out of fear of reprisal and not blood and love of violence and ideology. For those soldiers the greater the empathy and sense of responsibility for their wrongdoing the greater the psychological harm.  Same for Palestinians suiciders. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on June 13, 2018 at 8:16pm

Homer, thanks for the blog on guilt and shame. It is appropriate now as we observe the machinations of the political operatives, some taking action to correct wrongs and others using ego defense mechanisms to escape responsibility for past behaviors. The authors offer descriptions of each: Guilt and shame do not reflect equal “moral” emotions.

“Guilt” refers to responsibility for a specific immoral act and is one of the strengths of our culture. Guilt appears to be the more adaptive emotion, benefiting individuals and their relationships in a variety of ways. It corresponds with reparative actions including confessions, apologies, and undoing the consequences of the behavior. Guilt often associates with empathy for the feelings of the person harmed. People who are prone to feel guilt are less likely to be violent or delinquent or to commit criminal behavior.  They also experience less psychological distress. Guilt-prone children, adolescents, and adults do not reveal an increased risk for depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem.

“Shame” results from the belief that there is an inner corruption of the self. Shame is a moral emotion that can easily go awry; it corresponds with attempts to deny, hide, or escape the shame-inducing situation, (Ego Defense Mechanisms) Shame often leads to anger and blaming of other people and therefore to verbal and physical aggression. It is related to a wide variety of psychological symptoms, from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, eating disorder symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation.

~ Tangney, Steuwig, and Mashek, “Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior,” Annual Review of Psychology, 2007.

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