Jane Tangney: the Difference between Shame and Guilt

Shame and guilt are uniquely human emotions. These are emotions that does not exist in infants up to a certain age. In other words, shame and guilt are emotions learnt, and this learning coincides with the infant’s discovery of the self, when the infant becomes self conscious.

In the lecture below, June Tangney explains the results of her research in this area.

What is the difference between shame and guilt?

According to Tangney, shame comes with the awareness of (or the judgement of) the self as having done (or being) something wrong or unacceptable. Guilt is related to the judgment of the deed (ones behavior) that one has committed.

Shame is also extremely painful relative to guilt. Shame is a feeling of being defective, a sense of being small, exposed, powerless. Shame can last for short or long periods of time. When one feels shame, one tends to want to isolate themselves.

Guilt is different. It comes with remorse, and people who feel guilt are typically drawn to taking reparative action, rather than isolating themselves.

Link between Guilt and Empathy

Empathy is a state of feeling the other’s feelings, and it brings us to altruism.

@ 24:00 Guilt and empathy are connected. Tangney’s team of researchers have found correlation between propensity for the feeling of guilt and people’s ability to step into somebody’s shoes (to be empathic). Meanwhile the other more self-absorbed, pseudo-empathic responses are related to shame.

When a person talks about a shame related feeling in a situation, there is less concern for the other and more focus on the self. When the feeling is that of guilt, the concern is for the other’s feelings.

Shame, Anger and Aggression

The research also found that proneness to shame also related to proneness to anger and aggression. People who are prone to shame, also tend to manage their aggression in a more un-constructive way.

Shame in Family Conflicts

There is therefore correlation with studies of shame in family conflicts and domestic violence.

People prone to guilt are more likely to live a more “moral” life.

Shame and Guilt are not Equally “Moral” Emotions

On the condition that we do not mis-interpret shame with guilt, the findings show that guilt feelings do not cost the person psychologically (as otherwise thought). This means that so long as we do not judge ourselves, but judge the deeds instead, we are in a better situation to cope with the psychological aspect of having done something deemed as inappropriate.

Proneness to shame, on the other hand has been linked to vulnerabilities to depression, anxiety, eating disorder etc.

This also brings to attention how society treats incarcerated people.

Adapting to a more Guilt-Prone style and less Shame-Prone style

Research showed no real inter-generational link in shame and guilt proneness.

Longitudinal studies show that teenagers that are in the guilt proneness fare overall better than  their shame-prone peers.