Guilt and Shame: What's the Difference?


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.


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In the language of recovery (Alcoholics Anonymous and related organizations) shame includes a sense of worthlessness or self-loathing. Guilt is the recognition that someone has done something wrong, may need to atone for their act, and should change their behavior.

Surely the difference is whatever the dictionary you grew up with defines it to be?

In some societies, for example, they are distinguished by being associated with different people: the guilt belongs to the woman who rejects an arranged marriage, and the shame to her family. Since it is hard for any Western to even imagine what that particular kind of shame feels like when it's inside your head, it's say the mistake is probably to use either word as if it objectively describes a universal emotion.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 03 Oct 2009 #permalink

It seems that the question could be very useful esp. when studying motivated behavior. But I can't imagine subjects being able to describe the difference between a shame or guilt experience accurately in terms of their own subjective experience. They could know whether the inducement was personal recognition of - or social exposure of some transgression - and answer accordingly (the definitional case). But I suspect that since being asked to describe their experience and knowing that someone would be able to see their answer even without being able to connect it to them personally could easily have an effect on their response. i.e. what could have been a personal guilt response could become a shame response to some extent just because the question and answer is inherently a public transaction. (I can't imagine anyone being able to objectively analyze their private feelings and accurately distinguish between the two outside the context of the emotion causing event.) Can you?

Since I don't have easy access to the paper I'll order it through my public library and see if they overcame this somehow. But as Ian points out, different cultures learn to attach these two emotions to very different behavior and so that seems to argue for neither being innate and therefore even objectively accurate answers would be largely the result of socialization. This is a very interesting topic. Thanks

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 03 Oct 2009 #permalink

I wonder how much psychology we think we know would change if so much of it weren't based on undergrad subjects.

Agreed; especially since it's usually undergrad psych majors. My friend often complains about how a few tend to always second-guess the experiments.

Here are both clearly defined, I think that the confusion arises because both are in charge of a social function, but notice there are different one.

Guilt: understood as a social phenomenon that happens between people as much as it happens inside them. Guilt appears to arise from interpersonal transactions and vary with interpersonal context. In particular, guilt patterns appear to be most common, and most consistent in the context of communal relationships, which are characterized by expectations of mutual concern. Guilt serves various relationship-enhancing functions, including motivating people to treat partners well avoid transgressions and redistributing emotional distress.

Shame: located primarily as a social emotion, with a normative function of monitoring social bonds between people - rather than, as it is usually framed, as a 'self-conscious', 'negative' and 'pathological'emotion. This reframing of the healthier experience highlights the function of shame in building and strengthening relationships.

For more info about this check: and also read the comments they are fantastic

On trains in England there was a sign about riding without a ticket. Said if you got caught, people would look at you. Being from Texas, I did not get their point.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 20 Oct 2009 #permalink

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