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