A classically held anthropological view is that “shame results from a public exposure of some impropriety or shortcoming whereas guilt results from more private events.”
I concur with the anthropological notion that shame is the more public emotion (and also, that shame is likely a more primitive emotion that served adaptive functions in early developmental stages) and that is the definition that I will adhere to on this blog. In other words, the shame I will refer to is closely related to embarrassment (which distinctly depends on social disapproval, although embarrassment is often related to more trivial transgressions while shame is related to more serious failures). But I am interested in wider opinions.
In the 1990s, psychologists tried to test these assumptions empirically by subjecting 182 undergraduates with intense questionnaires (it should be noted that 3/4 of their subjects were female). In this study*, researchers found that shame and guilt both occurred most often in social contexts but that “solitary” shame and guilt experiences were also not uncommon.
However, the researchers did find:
When feeling shame, people felt more intensely scrutinized by others, and they focused more on others’ thoughts (as opposed to their own thoughts) about themselves than they did when they were feeling guilt.
Consider people who urinate on the street. If caught, they would probably feel something closer to shame than guilt (ditto for the dog-owners who don’t pick up after their pets or for litterbugs or for politicians caught rendezvousing with mistresses) . We are going to explore some case studies and talk about the benefits and dangers of shaming techniques. I hope you join in the discussion.
*Flicker, L. and D. Barlow. 1996. Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70: 1256-1269.