Studies show that humiliation is not an effective motivator, but it’s good twin, guilt, can encourage us to behave well.
Authorities in China recently made a surprising announcement: They want to see an end to public shaming of miscreants by the police.
It’s a step in the right direction that shame is falling out of favor as an official punishment in China. Thankfully, here, too, it remains the exception rather than the rule. Most of us have little appetite for bringing back the town stocks, and “perp walks” can end up parading an innocent suspect. The ugliness of shame makes us want to avert our eyes wherever we find it.
Yet in rejecting the cruelty of public humiliation, it’s important that we not make the mistake of tossing aside guilt as well. Despite the bad reputation it has acquired since perhaps Freud, few emotions are more socially productive or personally beneficial. Let’s not hold it against guilt that many people can’t distinguish it from its evil twin, shame.
What’s the difference between the two? Among psychologists, perhaps the most widely held view is that guilt consists of bad feelings about something you have done, whereas shame involves bad feelings about something that you are. The two may go together, of course; the guilt I may feel over stealing might lead to shame when I come to regard myself as a crook.
Nonetheless, there are good grounds for maintaining a sharp distinction, for while shame is bad for us, guilt is surprisingly useful. With its focus on behavior and responsibility, guilt promotes self-control across the board, and empathy as well. Shame, by contrast, appears almost wholly destructive—inspiring sufferers to lash out not just at others but at themselves. Shame is a well-known trigger for suicide, and studies have linked it with substance abuse.
The practice of public shaming, used extensively during China’s brutal Cultural Revolution, may sound creepy to Americans, yet we are no strangers to it in other forms. The scarlet letter imposed on Hester Prynne, after all, was not meant to signify her love for the Anaheim Angels. Even now, in some U.S. jurisdictions, authorities publish the names of prostitution customers, and some states require convicted drunk drivers to use special license plates that tell world of their transgression.
Psychologists June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, in their book “Shame and Guilt,” tell us that, “Guilt about specific behaviors appears to steer people in a moral direction—fostering constructive, responsible behavior in many critical domains. Shame, in contrast, does little to inhibit immoral action. Instead, painful feelings of shame seem to promote self-destructive behaviors (hard drug use, suicide) that can be viewed as misguided attempts to dampen or escape this most punitive moral emotion.”
To the extent shame can deter behavior, it does so only by means of fear rather than the development of a reliable moral compass. Guilt, on the other hand, depends on no one else; the guilt-stricken torment themselves because they know they’ve done something wrong.
In a fascinating long-term study, Ms. Tangney and Ms. Dearing assessed shame-proneness in 380 fifth-graders and then followed up years later. “No apparent benefit was derived from the pain of shame,” they report. “There was no evidence that shame inhibits problematic behaviors. Shame does not deter young people from engaging in criminal activities; it does not deter them from unsafe sex practices; it does not foster responsible driving habits; and in fact it seems to inhibit constructive involvement in community service.”
But it was a different story with guilt, which was assessed in the same study. Guilt-prone fifth-graders grew into teenagers who were more likely to apply to college, less likely to try heroin or suicide, and less likely to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They were also less likely to be arrested, had fewer sex partners, and were more likely to use birth control. “People who have the capacity to feel guilt about specific behaviors,” the authors write, “are less likely than their non-guilt-prone peers to engage in destructive, impulsive, and/or criminal activities.”
This is not to say that shame has no value. Politicians and institutions can be shamed into changing bad behavior, and individuals can use the threat of shame’s domesticated cousin—embarrassment—to alter their own behavior. Psychologists have found, for instance, that you are likelier to carry out your New Year’s resolutions if you tell everyone about them in advance. The fear of embarrassment can be a good motivator.
But so can guilt, which is why its bad name is so unfortunate. For a long time now, parents have been indicted by their offspring for inculcating guilt, and therapists consulted to get over it. Unfortunately, we had the wrong suspect all along, just like one of those perps splashed all over the news and later, quietly, exonerated.
Mr. Akst is a writer in Tivoli, N.Y.