I previously wrote, decrying the modern tendency for personal development gurus and psychologists to deplore the emotion of shame. Shame stands alone, among all the emotions, as being known as the ‘wrong’ emotion. These same professionals of the emotional state, tend to honor guilt, although they may make a distinction with extreme guilt. I believe the confusion around the vital emotions of shame and guilt lies in a failure to fully appreciate the internal affective state that we experience as shame and guilt.
Unable to appreciate the affective states of guilt and shame has lead to some exerts asking about shame, “What’s it for?” Previously I discussed how shame is a very important human emotion to our ‘fitting in’ to the tribe from the earliest human evolutionary period. This is very important for the survival of everyone in a tribe whose real power and security is found in the collective. The weaker the tribal member, the more necessary they must ‘fit in’ and in fitting in, be submissive to anyone else in the tribe who might ultimately protect them. Submission includes all types of usefulness such as skills and sexual favours, but also the appropriate courtesies toward the tribal leader. It is more than likely that tribal leaders have always been, and still largely are, of a psychopathic nature. A slight against such a leader is very likely to lead to swift justice only too readily enforced by sycophantic seconds whose desire to curry favour has no boundaries. Shame is an emotion of attitudinal checking, shutting down any impetuous behaviour that might attract negative attention from protectors or the leader, least that protection is immediately withdraw or worse.
Shame and guilt are not two distinct emotions. They are founded on the emotion of shame, with guilt having the added emotion of remorse. Shame is an inherent emotion activated by the child’s observance of ‘how things are done’ by their parents and siblings. It is foundational to the child behaving as ‘fitting in’ without any other necessary education although parental and sibling reinforcements through language and demonstration are certain to enhance the shame feature. The shame emotion is setup as a predictive emotion. It has an activation through future thought and imagination. Shame is like a tonus running everyone’s life. Building on early objects of shame, such as nakedness or talking loudly and freely, other complex objects eg sex outside of marriage, doing well academically at school, might be raised in family or social education. Indeed, in our complex society, there appears to be competing shaming among children, youth and adults, in the organisation of economic and social sub-tribes or cultures. Ridicule is the main form of complex shaming designed to elicit a ‘fitting in”. Low level ridicule is a constant and obvious tone from the mainstream of society. For those who don’t ‘fit in’, the shame elicits an avoidance reaction leading to the person finding another ‘tribe’. The ‘right tribe’ is the one that will utilize a ridiculing of characteristics that don’t apply to the person enrolled into that tribe, but may apply to the mainstream social group.
Some objects of shame can apply across all social groups eg not murdering others, not stealing from others. Not all objects of common shame are felt equally. For example, people have greater or lesser shame responses to being naked in public or on stage. At one end of the human shame spectrum are people who are burdened by deep bouts of shame that incapacitates them. At the other end of the spectrum, are people who have little shame around a certain behaviours. Psychopaths are people who are genetically predisposed to a lack of empathy, manipulate others to their personal ends, and exhibit a lack of shame and guilt. Psychopaths have a capacity to act, quite literally, shameless. Intelligent psychopaths are found in control roles in, probably, all public and private sector institutions and businesses, large and small. However it would be inadequate to blame shameless behavior on psychopathy and most acts of: bullying, damaging, over use of reward stimulation, and a falling away of responsibility for the social group, is performed by very ordinary people as part of the natural ridiculing tendencies. Some shameless behavior is quite harmless and may even have a contributive role in society eg in artistic expression as a mechanism for looking at the implications of specific taboos. Social and cultural taboos are noted for their inducement to shame.
Guilt is a subset of shame that occurs on the actual trespassing on the object of shame. Guilt is an emotion that rises from a past event as a combination of shame and remorse. The shame comes from the ‘knowing’ that the trespass has been committed. In a sense, shame is felt by moving the memory of the past event into the present or future. If the shame registers without remorse, then it cannot be said that guilt has been elicited. Sometime remorse is elicited as an internal state, and sometimes only with the disclosure to others of the trespass.
Guilt as an emotion should not be confused with legal guilt. Legal guilt defines an objective state of trespass. The ‘guilty’ party may or may not feel guilty or may experience any of the combinations of feel shame or not feel shame, with feel remorse or not feel remorse.
Shame is a valuable social tool for assisting people to fit into our complex society in a workable manner. Like all emotions, shame works best at low to medium levels, and can set up behavioural dysfunctions at medium to high levels. If there is a problem with shame, it is that our complex societies continue to add competing objects of ridicule as a point to that we should be behaving or allowing certain previously taboo behaviours to become mainstream, without that we really can evaluate which of these objects are unworkable or workable. Therefore we might be persuaded to enter activities that conflict with more important values or just be shown to be unworkable. Shame is mediated by have a clear set of socially bonding values that can be applied to all circumstances in social life. For most people, this means being raised by those values so that, not only are the values part of our internal locus of control but that we are privy to a ‘tribe’ of our family and others of like-minded values who can support us against the ridicule of others who hold to other values.