Saturday, May 12, 2012
Shame and guilt
Many empirical investigations about shame and guilt show that they should be understood as social emotions that appear between people just as much as in them. They seem to be found in many different forms for human activities, not just in transgressions but also there we find a positive difference between people. The extent to shame and guilt varies a lot with variations in the human context.
Roy F. Baumeister et al have written an interesting article called Guilt: An Interpersonal Approach (1994). I agree with many of the perspective they take here, but I am of the opinion that shame is very much in the same family of social emotion as guilt. I chose therefore to expand many of their views to also include the emotion of shame. Shame and guilt seem to be strongest, most widespread and most consistent in relations that are characterised by expectations towards common goals. Both shame and guilt serve as many unifying functions, including motivating people to treat colleagues in a good way and avoid transgressions, minimize differences and make it possible for less powerful colleagues to get their will and redistribute emotional despair. Both shame and guilt are common forms for despair and affects many of our actions. Many use them to excuse their offenders, to express sympathy, to manipulate others, to decline having sex, in the upbringing of children, as a support for self-control, and much more. One executes and/or avoids a surprisingly large number of behaviours because of the expectation of shame or guilt.
I chose to look at shame and guilt as interpersonal emotions, and not just as intra-psychological reactions. An exploration of shame en guilt is a study of what it means to be human. Shame and guilt is something that is to be found between people, not just inside of them. This means that they are interpersonal phenomena which are both functional and causality tied together with fellowship relations between humans. Their origin, function and process all have important interpersonal aspects. They can work in social relations so that social bonds are strengthen by bringing forth confirmation of care and obligation. They are also mechanisms for smoothing out unbalance and differences in emotional despair within a relation and for exercising influence on others.
Their social nature goes much further than the common understanding of moral standards that are given to our children by significant others and by society in general. They proceed to appear throughout the whole lifespan, primarily in interpersonal relations. People often get their partners to feel shame and guilt because of new transgressions and in hope of creating a change. Some experiences of shame and guilt will naturally occur in the private sphere, in ones mind and in social isolation. But still, most of these will be drawn from interpersonal processes carried out by highly socialised individuals with internalised reference groups.
Attempts at trying to construct definitions of shame and guilt are not easily done because of the fact that they are used in many different ways and often instead of each other regardless that they really are two different emotions connected to different kinds of experiences. Baumeister et al (1994) write that the main interest for psychologists is the subjective feeling of guilt, with all its causes and behavioral effect. To approach guilt as a subjective state of being entails that other important and influential ways in which guilt is used becomes irrelevant. Judicial guilt e.g. has technical definitions that are quite independent of subjective feelings or even feeling of responsibility for past actions. Judicial guilt is based on violations of judicial rules, even though the technical meaning of judicial guilt has developed further than being dependent of the quality and quantity of evidence. Helen Block Lewis (1971) writes that people can be guilty without any special emotion. This fits nicely with the judicial definition of guilt. This is discussed further in the article Is Guilt an Emotion? by Andrew Ortony (1987). He is of the opinion that there are at least two forms of guilt; one that is socio-judicial and the other that has an emotional meaning.
Baumeister et al (1994) understand guilt as an individual’s unpleasant emotional state of being in connection with possible objections to his or hers actions, lack of action, circumstances, or intentions. Guilt is an emotional despair, which is different than fear and anger, and based on the possibility than one may have done something wrong and that others may mean the same thing. Guilt differs from shame especially because guilt relates itself to a special action, and shame relates itself to the whole self (Lewis, 1971). Guilt can also be different from a fear of punishment because the despair is towards the action instead of the expectation of the action. One can naturally feel guilt in situations where there are small chances for punishment and therefore little fear. Knowledge of having offended another person can be enough to create guilt, even if the offended person is not able to return the transgression. On the other hand, it should be difficult to fear punishment from others without feeling some kind of guilt, except for if the other person is characterised by hostility instead of being offended. When guilt is understood as a subjective emotional condition, this means that intra psychic processes are also present. Baumeister et al (1994) stress that these intra psychic reactions have significance for the intrapersonal aspects they have.
From an interpersonal perspective, the most common cause of guilt would be giving injury, lose, or despair to a person one has a relation to. Even if guilt often is tried to close relations, it is not restricted to them. Proneness to guilt can be generalised from other relations, inclusive groups. Well socialised persons will probably have learned to feel guilt after giving injury also to strangers. A interpersonal perspective, will yet say that reactions to guilt will be stronger and more common and meaningful, in close relations than in weak or distance relations.
Isen (1984/1994) writes that communal relationships (built on common interests) between people seem to haves have silent rules which involves people having concern for each others well being. A consequence of this is that such relations do things simply because the wish to help each other without anticipating the same good doing back again. This contrasts to partners in an exchange relationships which build on an expectation of getting something back in order to maintain a balance in the relationship. People seem to be ready to act together, even with strangers, in a relation, because they expect the possibility of a communal relationship. They follow each others needs, even if nothing can be done to meet these needs there and then, they give help to their partners, they feel better after giving help (both as a mood and in a self-evaluation), and more susceptible to their partners emotional condition. Clark et al (1989) write more about communal and exchange relationships in their article Keeping Track of Needs and Inputs of Friends and Strangers. In reality will many relations not be pure communal or exchange relations, but a combination of both of these. It is very likely that guilt (and shame) in all relations comes primarily from the communal component.
To describe guilt (and shame) as an interpersonal or social phenomena can mean very different things depending on if one is speaking of a communal or exchange relationship. Sigmund Freud (1930/2005) writes that the social basis for guilt is totally to be understood as an exchange relationship. He sees guilt as a bi-product of human habitation to a life in a civilised society. The meaning for such a habitation is that all members must give up certain inclinations and needs so that everyone can be protected from being offended by others. Guilt says Freud, is a result of an internal mechanism which makes each individual obey group rules and therefore make exchange relations possible.
If one analyses guilt (and shame) in communal relations, the expense-gain analysis will lose its central meaning. Instead, one can see that guilt (and shame) as formed to strengthen communal relations of common interest, and for protecting the interpersonal bonds between individuals. The functions of guilt can therefore be relation-strengthening. It also seems as though people want and maybe need communal relations, so that people will some times react on the background of communal norms, just because the other is a potential accessible relations partner. Many people will adopt a communal way of being, just because they believe that the person they just have met maybe can be a part of the relation. This is important in order to understand why some people react with feelings of guilt (and shame) to seemingly strangers which otherwise would be reserved for more intimate partners.
What is it that makes people feel shame and guilt? It is necessary with some reflections of this immanent capacity in order to be able to develop a theory of shame and guilt. It seems clear that these emotions mean feeling bad, and the capacity to feel shame and guilt therefore begins with a natural basis for feeling bad. They can both be understood as a unpleasant wakening related to anxiety.
Baumester et al (1994) propose two sources that guilt (and shame) can stem from, the awakening of empathy and the anxiety for social exclusion. Both of these are important and vigorous sources for emotions and motivation in close communal relations. Humans are in them selves prepared to feel empathic despair as reactions to the suffering of others. Guilt combines empathic despair with a quality of responsibility for the distress and sufferings of others. This is discussed further in Development of Prosocial Behavior: Empathy and Guilt by M. L. Hoffman (1982). When one sees the sufferings of others, one will feel badly, and this bad feeling is the basis for guilt. Even if empathic despair can arise with any kind of suffering, empathic despair is usually acknowledged as at it strongest in close relationships. Communal worries for others well being, will probably have a strong binding to empathic reactions. Together with empathy, belonging and devotion are powerful foundations for emotional reactions.
Humans experience anxiety when standing in front of a threat of separation or exclusion from their mothers. Incidents which increase threats of social exclusion should therefore create anxiety and a form which this anxiety can take is guilt (or shame). Especially if one has done something (e.g. a transgression) which will cause rejection from a partner. The result of the anxiety could then be experienced as guilt (or shame). To combine empathic despair with anxiety for exclusion creates a potential mighty basis for analysing shame (and guilt) and foresee its pattern. Guilt (and shame) should be seen together with common social connections and associated with disturbances in the feeling of belonging, especially those that arise from suffering one self is the cause of. In a developmental view, primitive guilt (and shame) should focus primarily on those that are closest to ones self. More mature guilt (and shame) reflects the increasing feeling of communion with other people, but there should still be possibilities for guilt (and shame) to be strongest with confidential partners. Seen this way, the emotional basis for guilt (and shame) has a strong interpersonal component. This view differs considerably from perspectives that are based on factors like castration anxiety, self-aggression, or a conditioned anticipation of punishment. The emotional roots of guilt (and shame) lie in human belongingness, this means the human capacity to feel suffering and despair of others and the basic fear for alienation of actual or potential relation partners.
Kaare T. Pettersen
Baumeister Roy F., Arlene M. Stillwell and Todd F. Heatherton, 1994. Guilt: An
Interpersonal Approach, in Psychological Bulletin, 2: 243-267.
Clark, M. S., J. Mills, and D. M. Corcoran, 1989. Keeping Track of Needs of Inputs of
Friends and Strangers, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15: 533-542.
Freud, Sigmund,  2005. Civilization and its Discontent. W.W. Norton & Company.
Hoffman, M. L., 1982. Development of Prosocial Behavior: Empathy and Guilt, in Nancy
Eisenberg (ed.), The Development of Prosocial Behavior. San Diego: Academic Press.
Isen, A. M.,  1994. Toward Understanding the Role of Affect in Cognition, in R Wyer
and T. Srull (eds.) Handbook of Social Cognition. Hillsdale, Lawrence Erlbaum.
Lewis, Helen Block., 1971. Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. New York: International
Ortony, Andrew, 1987. Is Guilt an Emotion? in Cognition and Emotion, 1: 283-298.