SHAME AND GUILT

One feels ashamed or guilty when one fails to meet the standards and norms regarding what is right and appropriate. These emotions differ, depending on the transgression. If a man hits another while driving, he feels the guilt if he was drunk when driving. The man feels shame if the accident occurs due to incompetent driving. Shame typically results from the negative evaluation of the self by others, whereas guilt results from the negative evaluation of the self by the self. Shame exposes one’s defects to others. Guilt is associated with the fear of not living up to one’s standards. A shameless doesn’t mind offending others. A guiltless doesn’t like to amend or correct mistakes or heal a hurt. “While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.” The clash of self-interest with the interest of others is a common phenomenon. Balancing self-interest with the group’s interest is necessary, but often not easy. Shame often stops us from doing many inappropriate and wrong things and makes us cooperative. The feeling of being watched enhances cooperation. The feeling of ‘being watched’ could arise from external sources. It could also arise from within. The more collectivist human society is, the more prominent the role of shame becomes. In some societies breach of civility is not a big deal. In such societies, shame is less relevant. Shame works better at the group level because many of our problems are group problems. Our shameful actions may not harm others. It is also quite likely that our shameful conduct harms others. Such conducts should be brought to the notice of the general public, to cause embarrassment to the offenders for their conduct. Guilt can perhaps solve individual problems, but may not work at the institutional level. The burden of shame can be heavy, since shame is very closely related to reputation, and in many situations, reputation outranks many other measurement yardsticks. Shame works better if the potential for future interaction is high. When you know you’re unlikely to run into the same situation again, there is less incentive to change your behaviour. Some people have no shame, and a certain fraction of a given population will always behave shamelessly. Shame and guilt are subject and situation-specific. They can be delinked but not always.

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© 2017 by Dr Purnendu Ghosh