Friday, May 11, 2012
Theories of shame and guilt
A look at some psychological theories
The social nature of shame and guilt and their interpersonal origin have been confirmed by some former theories, denied by others and tried counteracted by most. Some have even tried to combine analysis of their important social aspects, while at the same time denied such aspects. I have no good explanation for these inconsistent findings, other than seeing that most of them are created in an empirical vacuum. Many theories about shame and guilt are made from intuition and from observations and clinical impressions that are not collected systematically. On the other hand there are also studies that have so much empirical data that, collecting information has been seen as more important than the development of new theory.
1.Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) looked at guilt and shame as products of intra psychic conflicts or more precisely as a weapon used by the superego to influence decisions made by the ego, e.g. as he writes in his book New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933/1974) “…moral sense of guilt is the expression of the tension between the ego and the superego” (p.76). He insisted that the superego created guilt without any consideration to the outside world. There are some traces of interpersonal relations in Freud. He writes e.g. in Civilization and its Discontent (1930/2005) that the superego is a adaptation of the human organism with the civilised world, which can be understood as living together with other people.
2.Helen Block Lewis (1913-1987) asserted in her book Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (1971) that interpersonal factors are irrelevant for shame and guilt. She writes e.g. that “guilt is evoked only from within the self; it is thus a personal reaction to an “objective act of transgression”” (p.84). Guilt is not even come from a possible contact with another person e.g. a generalised other of an internalised reference group. She therefore denies in her analysis any significant role of interpersonal processes, even though many of her arguments seem to incline such processes.
3.Other theorists have explicitly and most firmly denied interpersonal aspects of shame and guilt. Gerhart Piers and M. Singer (1953/1971) write that these emotions are drawn off of castration anxiety and they treat them as reactions to the impulses from id; aggression, destruction and sexuality (especially incest). They allege that genuine shame and guilt are “experienced in solitude and contain no conscious or realistic reference to an audience” (Shame and Guilt: A Psychoanalytic and Cultural Study. p.68), and thereby deny any form of interpersonal dimension.
4.James Gilligan (1976) asserts that shame and guilt comes from a reaction from aggressive instincts connected with the early stage in Freuds scheme; the “oral-biting-cannibalistic-sadistic, anal-sadistic and phallic-competitive” stage (Beyond Morality: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Shame, Guilt and Love, p.149). Gilligan also writes that punishment is an important aspect to shame and guilt.
5.In the book Self-Consciousness and Social Anxiety (1980) Arnold H. Buss writes that guilt is connected to the private self-reflection, which does not necessarily include other persons or their perspectives. “Guilt is essentially private. The best test of guilt is whether anyone else knows of the transgression” (p.159). The fact that no one has to know about ones guilt, just as with shame, confirms their intra psychic nature.
6.A behavioristic perspective is maintained by D.L. Mosher in his article Interaction of fear and guilt in inhibiting unacceptable behaviour from 1965. He writes that “guilt may be defined as a generalized or expectancy for self-mediated punishment for violating, anticipating the violation of, or failure to attain internalized standards of proper behavior” (p.162). His reference to a self-mediated punishment makes it clear that the focus for guilt is not from other persons, but something negative that one does to one self. Guilt, and in my opinion also shame, are in a behavioristic perspective a anticipation of self injury, not a interpersonal phenomena. Such a definition does not give room for interpersonal factors, except for the possibility that “internalised standards” can be learned from others.
7.Otto Rank (1884-1939) was one of Sigmund Freud’s closest colleagues for more than twenty years, but the writing of The Trauma of Birth (1929/1994) changed that. Rank suggested that shame and guilt have social roots and was he first to suggest a pre-oedipal phase, a phase before the Oedipal-complex which Freud had put forth. Rank started with standard psychoanalytic views around shame and guilt, but his thoughts developed gradually into a theoretical position which is unique within psychoanalytic psychology. He came to understand these emotions as a product of a process of becoming an individual, together with other individuals. These emotions come forth in the infantile dependence of the mother and in fear and anxiety for losing this dependency; they function as a force which continues in this relation. Freud explained tirelessly, that it was the Oedipus complex which was the nucleus of the neurosis and the foundational source of all art, myth, religion, philosophy, therapy – indeed of all human culture and civilization. So great was this impact on Freud that he distanced himself from his colleague together with several others friends he had in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, where Rank was Vice-President until then.
8.Already in 1937 did Karen Horney (1885-1952), a pioneering theorist in personality, psychoanalysis, and "feminine psychology", write in her book The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, that the feeling of guilt (and shame) came from a basic fear for the missing approval from others, and she speculated in that fact that we try to make others feel guilty (and shameful) comes from neurotic interpersonal motives. With this, she turned traditional psychoanalytic theory “upside down”. Horney often criticized the work of Sigmund Freud. For instance, she opposed Freud's notion of penis envy, claiming that what Freud was really detecting was women's justified envy of men's power in the world. In her personality theory, Horney reformulated Freudian thought and presented a holistic, humanistic perspective that emphasized cultural and social influences, human growth, and the achievement of self-actualization. Though she was often considered to be too outspoken, Horney often has the distinction of being the only woman whose theory is included in personality textbooks (Quinn, 1987).
A look at some sociological theories
Jan E. Stets and Jonathan H. Thurner (2006) edited a useful reference book called Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions. One of the four sections in this book consists of a description of thirteen sociological theories of emotional dynamics that have informed empirical work. Several of these also include theories of shame and guilt.
1.Theordore D. Kemper (2006) writes in this book of one of these theories which he calls “the power-status theory of emotions”. He writes that we feel shame/embarrassment when one senses that one’s own status is excessive and builds his theory, when it comes to guilt and shame, on the works of Erving Goffman (1922-1982), especially The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) and Behavior in Public Places (1963). When one has done something one is ashamed of, the result is losing honour. The way out of ones shame is not through punishment, but through compensation, i.e.
“…an act or actions that reinstate the person as one who deserves the amount of status originally claimed originally that has been lost. Thus, if someone acts in a cowardly manner and has thus brought shame on himself or herself, the solution usually is to engage in immoderately risky behavior to show that the act of cowardice was an aberration and not characteristic (p.100).
When the status of someone else is insufficient, this is
“because one is not conferring it in adequate amounts. This can lead either to guilt or
shame/embarrassment, or both. If the reason for the deprivation of the other is a power tactic by the self, it will lead to guilt…If the reason, on the other hand, for the deprivation is an inadequacy of the self, then the emotion is shame/embarrassment” (p.101).
Guilt, in this theory, is “concerned with doing wrong to another via excess power, frequently in violation of a moral standard” (p.100). One feels guilt because of a wrong doing which makes one feel that “one does not deserve to receive the amount of status one has claimed for oneself” (p.100). A person can feel both shame and guilt in the same in the same situation, but it is according to Kemper important to keep them separate. They come from different forms of relationships and how to cope with them will also differ.
2.Gretchen Peterson (2006) has written about “the cultural theory” and argues that Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) has shown us the link between emotions and the self. In his conception of the looking-glass self, which he writes about in Human Nature and the Social Order (1902/2006), he links emotional reactions to the conception of the self. Cooley argued that shame come from how people perceive themselves is dependent upon how they think they appear to others and how others are believed to judge that appearance. The work of Cooley has set the stage for later theories on how culture effects both emotions and the self.
3.In the book Social Evolution (1985), Robert L. Trivers writes from an “evolutionistic perspective” that human guilt and shame comes from a natural selection because these emotions prevent humans from carrying out actions that could harm their relations to others. This is because such relations are important for survival and reproduction. Michael Hammond (2006) writes that “evolutionary theory” started with Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) interest in how emotions can be understood as a basic form for communication among humans and animals (1872/2007). Paul Ekman (2004) has used a lifetime doing research on how face expressions are used in all kinds of social interaction. He meant that research of the face and emotions can cast light on the evolutionary origin of emotions that are common in all human cultures. Hammond (2006) writes that for the evolutionary thinker, emotions sort out different kind of behavior into
“meaningful categories that carry rewards for following one path of action as opposed
to another. Emotions provide the physiological impact that can give real weight to a conscience of a moral imperative. Shame and guilt are the prime examples of this moralizing role for emotions. They can give gravity to any social construction to which individuals are emotionally tied. They can transform an ultimately arbitrary rule of behavior into something that appears very meaningful to the individual bathed in the emotional release tied to obeying or disobeying that rule” (p.370).
4.Turner (2006) writes that Thomas J. Scheff (1988, 1994, 1997) put together the thoughts of Charels H. Cooley (1902/2006) and Helen B. Lewis (1971) and came out with a new theory of emotions. Scheff’s theory is characterized by is combination of psychoanalytic tradition with symbolic interactionism. Scheff argues that shame is a repressed emotion; we have a tendency not to show our shame so that shame is almost invisible in our western culture. Gershen Kaufman (1980/1992) puts this view it to the point by saying that
“our culture is a shame-based culture, but here, shame is hidden. There is shame about shame and so it remains under strict taboo. Other cultures, for example, Eastern and Mediterranean, are organized more openly around shame and its counterpart, honor. What we need in our culture is to honor shame, and thereby redeem it” (p. 32-33).
Scheff and Retzinger (1991) write that our society, which represses shame, is characterized by meetings between people where shame is not acknowledged. Many people deny having shame over a whole lifetime. This repression of shame in our society leads to a diffuse hostility which can be used and/or misused by political leaders, such as Hitler before and under World War II. Scheff characterizes shame as the master emotion as Lewis also coded shame rather than guilt as the most common emotion. Turner (2006) calls repression the master defence mechanism.
“The more negative the emotion and the more they are associated with a failure to
verify self, the more probable is repression…Most important, the more emotions are repressed, the more they will be transmuted into new kinds of emotional response” (p.286).
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