Understanding the difference between guilt and shame can help us process feelings of failure

There are two ways to hang your head low.
There are two ways to hang your head low.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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No experience is more universal than failure, but humans differ wildly in how they respond to it. After the 2016 US presidential election, reactions on the political left ranged from liberal self-flagellation and calls for increased understanding of the working class to pessimistic defeatism and a backlash against ”uneducated and closed-minded” Trump supporters. Some people even compared Trump to Hitler.

Behavioral science can provide some insight into how liberals processed this failure. The primary emotions that descend from our own human shortcomings are guilt and shame.

The terms are popularly interchangeable, but their psychological meanings are quite different. Shame arises from a negative evaluation of the self (“I did something wrong”) whereas guilt comes from a negative evaluation of one’s behavior (“I did something wrong”). Shame is a general feeling of inadequacy; guilt is a specific sense of transgression.

On the whole, people who experience shame tend to blame others or to deny and try to escape the shame-inducing situation. These people tend to have reduced empathy and exhibit hostility, anger, and aggression. However, those experiencing guilt tend to take responsibility for their actions, strive to repair any damage they have done, have increased empathy, and manage their anger without resorting to aggression. In short, shameful people avoid and attack; guilty people repair and rebuild.

There is considerable scientific evidence for the differentiation of shame and guilt. For example, shame and guilt predict different behaviors: Shame-proneness, but not guilt-proneness, is positively correlated with substance-abuse problems and psychological abuse in dating relationships. Children who are more prone to guilt are less likely to engage in risky behaviors as adults, while shame-prone children are more likely to grow up to have unprotected sex and use illegal drugs. A study of recently released criminals found that guilt-proneness, but not shame-proneness, predicts a lack of re-offence with one year of their release from prison; this is mediated by the fact that shame-prone inmates tend to blame other people for their actions.

Shame and guilt even produce different patterns of physiological response. One study found that feelings of shame, but not guilt, result in elevated proinflammatory cytokine activity, which may play a role in inflammation-linked conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease.

Both guilt and shame are evoked by failure, but the dominance of one over the other has strong implications for how an individual behaves in the wake of failure. In particular, studies show that shame and guilt differently impact one’s sense of responsibility, feelings of empathy, and anger management.

Responsibility. In a study by June Tangney and colleagues, undergraduates were asked to describe their personal experiences of shame and guilt. The participants reported that their shame experiences were accompanied by a desire to hide and deny what they had done. By contrast, guilt inspires people to take restorative action. In psychology studies involving social bargaining games, people who betray their partners early on are more likely to cooperate in the future if they feel guilt—but not if they feel shame. People who feel guilt go out of their way to be fair-minded and avoid inequity—even when doing so comes at a personal cost.

Empathy. A study in Finland involving over 450 participants found that guilt-proneness was a far better predictor than shame-proneness of the ability to see others’ minds. That is, those who feel guilt are better able to adopt other people’s perspectives than those who feel shame, and they also show greater compassion and concern when witnessing someone in need. This echoes research by psychologists Karen Leith and Roy Baumeister, who showed that when people are asked to describe their own interpersonal conflicts from an opposing point of view, guilt-prone participants do an especially good job of taking the perspective of their antagonist. As Tangney and colleague Jessica Tracy put it, “Across numerous independent studies of people of all ages, results are remarkably consistent: guilt-prone individuals are generally empathic individuals.”

Anger. People who feel shame express withdrawal and avoidance, but they also experience heightened anger. This is because they externalize blame, warding off feelings of worthlessness by holding other people responsible for their failure. They therefore come to resent and rage against the world, and this resentment has a marked tendency to turn into aggression. Meanwhile, guilty people also feel angry sometimes, but they are much better at handling their anger and resisting the impulse to act out in a destructive fashion.

This relates to the recent US election. Having fallen short of their goals, some Democrats respond with shame or guilt. In fact, even if people don’t feel personally responsible for Trump’s victory, they can feel ashamed and guilty on behalf of their groups. The psychological literature suggests that the shame path might involve escaping the situation (e.g. literally, in the case of fleeing to Canada), refusing to accept the results of the election, or angrily demonizing supporters of Trump. The guilt path, on the other hand, involves accepting the outcome, attempting to reach out to and understand the other side, and planning productive means of implementing one’s political goals in future elections.

It is understandable that the failure of one’s political party in a democratic election might lead you to conclude that there is something rotten at the core of America, or that your party is flawed. However, social psychological research suggests that the best way to cope with an electoral loss is to focus on the specific ways your attempt fell short and take concrete steps to repair the damage. Democrats can’t change the outcome of the presidential race, but they can control how they construe the result.