Shame and Guilt Feelings: What is there to be learnt from psychological research?
Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg Halle - Saale, Germany
Philosophers and sociologists alike often refer indiscriminately to shame and guilt feelings as "moral" emotions. In contrast to this (and
also in critique of earlier ethnological distinctions between shame and guilt cultures), behavioural psychologists have expended great
effort to distinguish, phenomenologically as well as conceptually, between shame and guilt and to clarify their varied behavioural
implications. Two major propositions have been advanced in this context: (1) Shame involves the entire self as the focus of evaluation
whereas guilt focuses upon the specific act (transgression) commissioned. (2) Guilt in general is the more adaptive response,
personally as well as socially: Shame is conducive to either aggression or withdrawal, guilt presses toward reparative action (cf.
Lewis, Tangney et al.). Self-esteem might function as a moderator variable in such situations (cf. Baumeister et al.). Several versions
of shame and guilt scales based on these assumptions have been developed. Another helpful conceptualization has been offered by G. Piers who
suggests that "guilt anxiety accompanies transgression; shame, failure". This definition can be amended by the account given by J.
Aronfreed: Whereas failure refers to all sorts of demonstrated incompetence, incapacities, flawed performances or low status
experience, guilt is based on a moral evaluation of what one has done or not done, i.e. it refers to cognitions concerning harmful
consequences of an act (or inaction) for others. Though there is still much discussion about appropriate definitions,
there is also general agreement (1) that shame and guilt feelings are often blended and (2) that cultures differ with regard to the relative
weight they assign to shame and guilt as elements in their repertoire of social control mechanisms. Another interesting set of distinctions has been worked out in the cognitive-developmental theory of moral consciousness: Remorse and regret are characteristic emotions governed by the autonomous type of conscience, whereas the heteronomous type typically props up the "warm glow" of pangs of conscience. This dichotomy, however, misses another type of conscience which is based on the (euphoric) experience of self-transcendence (Ch. Taylor, H. Joas).