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Shame and its Features: Understanding of Shame


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Shame is a complex emotion and often discussed with reluctance; these feelings are usually incapacitating and unbearable. In this paper, the aim is to review our understanding of shame. The paper highlights recent empirical findings in order to define shame and explore its different aspects and characteristics such as its development, its occurrence and its different forms and shapes. Furthermore, it identifies differences between shame and similar affective experiences such as guilt and embarrassment and takes a closer look at shame in different cultures and contexts
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European Journal of Social Sciences Studies
ISSN: 2501-8590
ISSN-L: 2501-8590
Available on-line at:
Copyright © The Author(s). All Rights Reserved.
© 2015 2017 Open Access Publishing Group 75
doi: 10.5281/zenodo.1453426
Volume 3 Issue 3 2018
Neda Sedighimornani
University of Bath,
United Kingdom
Shame is a complex emotion and often discussed with reluctance; these feelings are
usually incapacitating and unbearable. In this paper, the aim is to review our
understanding of shame. The paper highlights recent empirical findings in order to
define shame and explore its different aspects and characteristics such as its
development, its occurrence and its different forms and shapes. Furthermore, it
identifies differences between shame and similar affective experiences such as guilt and
embarrassment and takes a closer look at shame in different cultures and contexts.
Keywords: shame; self-conscious emotions; culture; self-esteem; guilt
Shame is notoriously unpleasant emotion that almost all of us have experienced at least
once in our lifetimes. Almost everyone knows what the feeling of shame is like.
However, we are reluctant to disclose our shameful experiences. It is often mentioned
that shame is a taboo subject (Brown, 2010). Ironically, we are ashamed of our shame. It
seems to be much easier to say that I am angry/sad/nervous‛ than to say I am ashamed.”
Rather than finding it liberating, there is an assumption that talking about shame is
demeaning, or is a sign of weakness. Therefore, until recently, there has been a dearth of
research, understanding, and knowledge about shame, to the extent that shame and
similar emotions, such as guilt, are used interchangeably in the literature.
Since shame appears to be present in a wide variety of psychological disorders
and is associated with mental health problems such as depression, social phobia, and
eating disorders, it is necessary to extend our knowledge in this area, and to become
well-equipped to deal with shame.
The overarching purpose of this paper is to present an overview of shame, and
explores the nature and main features thereof. This paper has been divided into three
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sections: understanding of shame, differentiation of shame from similar constructs, and
associations between shame, culture, and gender.
1. Understanding of Shame
The feeling you get as a result of doing or thinking something you believe to be bad or
immoral. It can also come from a fear of others finding out what you’ve done.”
Embarrassment or the feeling of being annoyed at yourself. I would describe it as
I would describe shame as an emotion of particular ridicule or a sense of diverging from
the social norm, i.e. not fitting into the world, being particularly different from what is
socially accepted and exposed as such.”
When you feel as though you have done something bad to someone else you know. When
you can’t look at someone in the eye.”
These are a few examples of how students at our university, largely unfamiliar
with psychology, described shame. Like these students, I also find it very difficult to
define shame. From my personal experience, I can say that shame is an overwhelmingly
negative emotion. Feelings of shame make me feel insignificant and inferior. When I
feel shame, I wish the ground would swallow me up. I wish I could be invisible and not
be noticed. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, shame is: The painful emotion
arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s
own conduct or circumstances (or in those of others whose honour or disgrace one regards as
one’s own), or of being in a situation which offends one’s sense of modesty or decency (OED
online, December, 2014).
The current shame theorists and the empirical research suggest that shame is one
of the so-called self-conscious emotions (M. Lewis, 1992), because it mainly involves an
evaluation of the self. Shame is believed to be an incapacitating emotion that is
accompanied by the feeling of being small, inferior, and of shrinking. The self, as a
whole, is devalued and considered to be inadequate, incompetent, and worthless.
Shame might also involve the feeling of being exposed, condemned, and ridiculed
(Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007; Vikan, Hassel, Rugset, Johansen, & Moen, 2010).
Gilbert (2002) stated that shame can be considered as a multifaceted experience
with different features and components including: a social or external cognitive
component, internal self-evaluative component, emotional component, behavioural component,”
and physiological component(p. 5). A social or external cognitive component refers to the
idea that shame often occurs in social contexts and evokes thoughts such as ‚others see
me as worthless and inferior‛. An internal self-evaluative component refers to the notion
that shame can include negative evaluations of the self and negative thoughts about the
self, such as I am a failure, inadequate, ugly, and worthless.” An emotional component refers
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to the idea that feelings and emotions such as self-disgust, anger, and anxiety may occur
or exist when individuals feel shame. A behavioural component includes defensive
responses, such as a desire to hide, avoid eye contact, engage in submissive behaviour,
express anger, or a desire to take revenge that is often associated with shame. A
physiological component suggests that shame is associated with a stress response, or that
it may increase parasympathetic activity.
1.2 What Kind of Emotion is Shame?
Emotions such as sadness, happiness, fear, anger, and disgust are usually regarded as
basic emotions because they are assumed to be biologically primitive, and to have
survival and reproductive values (Ortony & Turner, 1990; Tracy & Robins, 2004). For
example, it is often mentioned in the literature that fear evokes the fight-or-flight
reaction, which is a physiological response to a potential threat or attack, and is
essential for the survival of animals and humans. The basic emotions are also thought to
be universal and pan-cultural; they are associated with recognisable facial expressions
that convey a particular meaning or information in all cultures across the world.
Furthermore, basic emotions do not necessarily require higher cognition or thought
processes; therefore, they can be experienced by both humans and animals (Ortony &
Turner, 1990; Tracy & Robins, 2004).
Unlike basic emotions, shame does not seem to have distinctive universal facial
expressions, and is not experienced similarly in different cultures (Edelstein & Shaver,
2007). Emotions such as shame, pride, guilt, embarrassment, envy, empathy, and
jealousy are associated with a sense of self and self-awareness; hence, they belong to a
family of self-conscious emotions (Gilbert, 2011; M. Lewis, 1992; Tracy & Robins, 2004).
To experience shame, individuals need an ability to form self-representations,
internalise external values, and compare and evaluate themselves. Therefore, shame is
not experienced in species with lower cognitive abilities and understanding (M. Lewis,
1992; Tracy & Robins, 2004).
Nevertheless, Gruenewald, Dickerson, and Kemeny (2007) considered shame to
be a basic emotion. They have argued against the binary classification of emotions
(primary versus secondary or basic versus complex). They suggested that it would be
more suitable to regard emotions along a continuing axis from basic to more complex.
According to these authors, shame fulfils most of the essential criteria for a basic
emotion. For instance, they reasoned that although shame does not have a defined facial
expression, it can be identified through a mixture of facial and bodily behaviours, such
as gaze avoidance and a head down slumped posture. They further acknowledged that
there is insufficient evidence to support the notion that shame is expressed or displayed
similarly across different cultures; however, they asserted that ‚shame-like‛ emotions
are present in almost all cultures. Specifically, these kinds of emotions are evoked when
there is a feeling that the self is threatened or is positioned as having a lower status
(Kemeny, Gruenewald, & Dickerson, 2004). Although no consensus exists in research or
theories that focus on emotion classification, the view that shame is a self-conscious
emotion predominates in the literature.
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1.3 The Development of Shame
It is believed that self-conscious emotions, such as shame, guilt, and pride, do not exist
at birth (Lagattuta & Thompson, 2007; M. Lewis, 1995, 2000; Tangney & Dearing, 2002).
Experiencing these emotions seems to depend on particular cognitive prerequisites
(Stipek, 1995). In particular, since the notion of self must be developed, and children do
not have a sense of self as autonomous beings until the second year of their lives, self-
conscious emotions begin to emerge between the ages of 18 and 24 months (M. Lewis,
2007). Before this age, children experience emotions such as joy and happiness, but not
self-evaluative emotions such as shame and pride (Stipek, 1995). By the end of their
second year, children recognise themselves in a mirror and start to form thoughts about
their physical beings (M. Lewis, 1992).
M. Lewis (1992, 2000) has postulated a model of emotional development in
which emotions appearing at birth and requiring little or no cognition are called
‚primary‛ or ‚basic‛ emotions. The model proposes that, at the age of around 15 to 18
months, the idea of me‛ or self-awareness occurs. Around this period, self-conscious
non-evaluative emotions such as embarrassment, envy, and empathy, which do not
require self-evaluation, emerge. These emotions are based on self-awareness, but not on
self-evaluation. M. Lewis (2007) called these emotions self-conscious exposed emotions. The
model further suggests that around their third birthday, children start to learn about
standards, rules, and goals by which they can evaluate their own behaviour. They also
begin to make attributions about the self, and decisions about their success or failure.
These complex cognitive abilities facilitate the rise of self-conscious evaluative emotions
such as pride, shame, and guilt (M. Lewis, 2007).
There is some empirical evidence that indicates that two-year old children are
capable of showing signs of guilt and shame. For example, Barrett, Zahn-Waxler, and
Cole (1993) found that two-year old children demonstrate shame-relevant behaviour,
such as avoidance and hiding, or guilt-like behaviour, such as approach and mending,
when they broke the experimenter’s (rigged) clown rag doll, which presumably had
sentimental value for the experimenter. More importantly, M. Lewis, Alessandri, and
Sullivan (1992) demonstrated that three-year old children are cognitively able to
evaluate task difficulty and to rate their performance accordingly. In particular, they
found that three-year old children, who failed to perform well on an easy task, showed
greater signs of shame (body collapsed, lowered eyes, downward gaze and so on) than
did those who failed to perform well on a difficult task. In other words, failure on its
own did not evoke a feeling of shame; it might have induced sadness or
disappointment in some children, but only those children who failed the easy task
experienced shame.
Nevertheless, it is important to point out that the shame or guilt-related
behaviours, such as gaze aversion, or the avoidance tendencies that were observed in
this experiment are not exclusive to the feeling of shame or guilt (Barrett et al., 1993). It
is debatable whether eye gaze aversion or slumped shoulders in young children can be
interpreted as early signs of shame. In fact, Ferguson and Stegge (1995) claimed that,
while five and six-year old children are aware of shame and guilt and recognise them as
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negative emotions, they seem unable to describe a situation in which they have felt
shame or guilt.
Furthermore, Griffin (1995) contended that children do not experience self-
conscious emotions such as shame and pride in an adult form before the age of seven to
eight years. For example, when a group of five-year old children were asked to indicate
how a child who had violated a social standard and had been judged negatively in front
of his classmates felt, the majority of the children stated that the child felt sad, mad or
bad, but not ashamed or embarrassed. According to Griffin (1995), understanding social
standards, recognising violations, and being aware of a judgmental audience are
essential for experiencing shame and guilt, and children do not fully develop these
abilities until the age of eight.
Similarly, Leary (2007a) stated that self-conscious emotions are essentially social
emotions, and are evoked when an individual is able to imagine him- or herself in
others’ minds, and to recognise that others form opinions, or judge and evaluate the
self. In this regard, Heerey, Keltner, and Capps (2003) demonstrated that children with
autism, who had difficulty recognising and understanding that others form mental
states different from their own perspectives, minds, and beliefs (impairment in theory
of mind), also had a problem identifying non-verbal expressions of embarrassment and
shame in comparison to children without autism. However, their ability to identify non-
self-conscious emotions, such as anger, disgust, and contempt, was not significantly
different from that of children without autism.
It is perhaps reasonable to conclude that three-year old children show signs of
shame, but that sophisticated reasoning about shame and a complete understanding of
this complex emotion does not occur until the age of seven or eight. For instance,
Olthof, Ferguson, Bloemers, and Deij (2004) found that children seven-years old and
older attributed a greater degree of shame to a protagonist who did something wrong
that consequently led to negative identity and self-evaluation (such as lying about
taking necessary medicine and getting sick as a result), but attributed more guilt to a
protagonist who did something wrong that did not lead to unwanted identity, such as
sending a family pet away because of the protagonist’s allergy. This study showed that
seven-year old children are able to appreciate the sophisticated and subtle differences
between shame and guilt, which are usually seen in adults (Lagattuta & Thompson,
1.4 Parenting and Shame
Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1983) proposes that forming a bond with others,
particularly with a primary caregiver, is essential for children’s survival. Based on this
theory, children have an innate drive to seek a relationship with a protective adult.
More importantly, this theory suggests that the quality of the early relationships
between children and their attachment figures leads to the development of Internal
Working Models (IWMs), which include mental representations, beliefs, and
expectations that children develop about the self, others, and the relationships between
the self and others. This internal working model conceivably determines how the child
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will interact with others in the future. For example, the infant’s experience of sensitive
care leads to the development of secure attachment, which in turn encourages the child
to see the self positively and to be more agreeable in social encounters. On the other
hand, insecure attachment (insensitive and poor primary care) leads to the formation of
a negative self-image, which in turn contributes to a lack of confidence and self-doubt
(see Thompson, 2006, for a review).
Colman and Thompson (2002) found that, while engaging in problem solving
tasks, insecure children seek their mother’s help more quickly and often in unnecessary
situations, and they express more frustration than do securely attached children. More
interestingly, when experiencing failure, securely attached children were confident
enough to see and accept their limitations and imperfections effortlessly, while insecure
children struggled to acknowledge their weaknesses (Clark & Symons, 2000).
Furthermore, Kelley, Brownell, and Campbell (2000) showed that critical and negative
maternal attitudes during a challenging task at 24 months were related to the
experience of shame and avoidance at 36 months. On the contrary, positive maternal
evaluations predicted higher determination and motivation in solving a challenging
In general, it seems that children tend to internalise their parents’ attitudes
towards themselves (Ferguson & Stegge, 1995), which implies that if parents are hostile
and critical, children will view themselves in a negative light and criticise themselves
harshly (Lagattuta & Thompson, 2007). Bennett, Sullivan, and M. Lewis (2005) argued
that harsh parenting, criticism, and physical abuse lead children to believe that they are
unwanted and undesirable, which ultimately induces shame. These authors found that
physical abuse is related to shame, and that shame partially mediates the relationship
between abuse and behavioural maladjustments. Similarly, Gilbert, Allan, and Goss
(1996) found that the memory of being put-down, non-favoured, and belittled by
parents during childhood is related to shame-proneness in adulthood.
Moreover, Andrews’ research (1995, 1998, 2002) indicated that shame-proneness
is likely to stem from the experience of abuse, especially when the abuse lasts for a long
time. It seems likely that a multi-dimensional relationship exists between shame and
childhood abuse. Abuse (physical, sexual, or verbal) can make individuals feel inferior
and small. In other words, abuse of any kind is likely to put victims in a subordinate
position and to trigger submissive reactions (Andrews, 2002). It is not uncommon to see
that the abused child is stigmatised and blamed by the perpetrator and others in these
circumstances, which perhaps adds to the feeling of shame. Abused children may think
that there is something wrong with them that attracted the abuser. Even when the
abuse is discovered, the child is not relieved. In fact, after the discovery, he or she may
experience a higher level of shame (Feiring, Taska, & M. Lewis, 2002). The child may
fear how he or she will be perceived or treated in the future. There is also a possibility
that the involuntary physiological responses that are experienced during sexual abuse
cause further shame. Under these circumstances, victims of sexual abuse blame
themselves for unwanted reactions and feel disgusted with themselves (Pettersen,
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Overall, research on attachment and self-image suggests that feelings of shame
may arise as a result of dysfunctional child-parent interactions. In particular, rejection
by significant others may damage a child’s sense of self and self-image, which
consequently may cause him or her to be ashamed of the self or hate the self (also see
Mills, 2005).
1.5 When does Shame Happen?
Some predominant accounts in the literature describe the experience of shame and the
root thereof. There are indications that people tend to experience shame when they
become aware of the difference between their actual and ideal self-representation,
attribute a negative event to the self and evaluate the self negatively, or see themselves
as having a lower status. In this part, we look at each of these theories.
1.5.1 Actual self-versus ideal self-image with regard to shame
Older psychoanalytic approaches argued that shame arises when there is a conflict
between the ego (the identity that resembles the real self) and the ego-ideal (the perfect
and ideal image to which one aspires). Scholars assumed that guilt was evoked when
there was a discrepancy between the ego and the superego; in other words, the
conscience, cultural, and moral standards (also see Barrett, 1995; M. Lewis, 1992;
Tangney & Dearing, 2002).
Similarly, but concentrating on the self and the difference between self-
representations, Higgins (1987) proposed the self-discrepancy theory which focused on
inconsistencies or conflicts that may exist between different characteristics of the self.
One of the main purposes of this theory was to associate different kinds of emotional
vulnerabilities with different types of incompatible self-beliefs. In order to do so, this
theory postulated three dimensions of the self:
The actual self, which includes characteristics and attributes that someone has, or
that other people think he or she possesses,
The ideal self, which refers to characteristics and attributes that someone wishes
for or hopes to obtain (wishes, hopes, and aspirations), and
The ought self, which involves characteristics or attributes that someone thinks
that he or she should have, such as duty, obligations, and responsibilities.
Furthermore, this theory discriminates between two standpoints from which the
self can be evaluated:
A personal perspective/standpoint (what you believe), and
Others’ perspectives/standpoints (what significant others believe).
Considering both the self-domains and standpoints six, different self-
representations are produced: actual/own, actual/other, ideal/own, ideal/other,
ought/own, and ought/other. Actual/own and actual/other are known as self-concepts,
particularly actual/own, while ideal/own, ideal/other, ought/own, and ought/other
guide or direct individuals, and are known as self-guides.
Broadly speaking, self-discrepancy theory predicts that the difference between
the actual self and the ideal self induces dejection-related emotions such as sadness or
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disappointment because one’s desires or wishes have not been fulfilled, while the
difference between the actual self and the ought self generates agitation-related
emotions such as fear, threat, and restlessness because one has failed to meet
obligations and expectations.
It is relevant here that self-discrepancy theory predicts that failure to meet
others’ expectations (a discrepancy between actual/own and ideal/other) induces
feelings of shame, embarrassment, and despondency because these emotions are related
to beliefs that someone has lost her or his value or worth in the eyes of others. In
contrast, when there is a discrepancy between actual/own versus ought/own, feelings of
guilt, self-contempt, and uneasiness will be elicited because one has failed to live up to
one’s own standards and obligations.
There is some empirical evidence that suggests that self-discrepancies are related
to psychological problems. For example, Higgins, Klein, and Strauman (1985) found
that differences between actual and ideal representations were related to dejection-
related emotions, such as depression, and that discrepancies between actual and ought
self-representations were associated with agitation-related emotions, such as anxiety.
Similarly, when individuals were asked to write about actual/ideal differences, they
reported more sadness, and when they were asked to write about actual/ought
discrepancies, they felt more agitated (Higgins, Bond, Klein, & Strauman, 1986).
Nonetheless, the extent to which this theory is accurate in terms of predicting
emotional vulnerabilities, such as shame and guilt, is unclear. For instance, Tangney,
Niedenthal, Covert, and Barlow (1998) tested Higgins’s (1987) hypotheses, and
questioned their credibility. Specifically, they asked participants to complete a series of
questionnaires, such as the Selves Questionnaire that measures self-discrepancy, and
the Test of Self-Conscious Affect (TOSCA), which measures shame and guilt-proneness.
Their analyses indicated that not only was the discrepancy between actual/own and
ideal/other related to shame-proneness, but also all forms of self-discrepancies. In
addition, the association among all types of self-discrepancies were relatively high,
which brings the validity of the Selves Questionnaire and the theory into question.
According to the personal accounts of ashamed individuals, Lindsay-Hartz
(1984) found that failing to achieve an ideal image is not essential for experiencing
shame. Following these interviews, Lindsay-Hartz concluded that the feeling of shame
was more closely related to the recognition of a negative ideal (who we would not like
to be) rather than to the discrepancy between the actual self and the ideal self (Tangney
& Dearing, 2002). Lindsay-Hartz (1984) explained that what we realize about ourselves
when ashamed is that we are who we do not want to be(p.697). For example, participants
mentioned things like I am fat and uglyrather than ‚I failed to be pretty‛ andI am bad
and evil rather than I am not as good as I want to be‛ (Lindsay-Hartz, de Rivera, &
Mascolo, 1995, p.227); or I realized that I was a crook and a thief, and I didn’t want to be
(Lindsay-Hartz, 1984, p.697). This difference is not merely semantic. In fact, the
participants claimed that the difference was critical for understanding their feelings
(Gilbert, 1998).
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1.5.2 Cognitive attributes and shame
The way shame is defined in cognitive-attributional theories over the last three decades
has been very popular. These theories explain how and when shame is evoked.
Specifically, they indicate that shame has a cognitive, as well as an affective element (M.
Lewis, 2003; Dearing & Tangney, 2002; Tracy & Robins, 2007b). Prominently, M. Lewis
(1992) argued that shame is not elicited in response to a specific situation, but that its
generation merely depends on an individual’s interpretation of a negative event. Thus,
an event that causes shame in one person may cause guilt in another (M. Lewis, 1992;
Tangney & Dearing, 2002). In other words, shame is distinguished from similar self-
conscious emotions on the basis of an attribution pattern.
According to attribution theories (Weiner, 1985), when explaining reasons for
our (and others’) actions, we consider three dimensions:
1. Locus: whether an action is caused by an actor (internal) or by a situation
2. Stability: whether actions or causes are fixed (stable) or not (unstable), and
3. Controllability: whether individuals have control over some causes
(controllable) or do not (uncontrollable).
As reported by the cognitive-attributional theory of shame, elicitation of shame is
associated with internal, stable, and uncontrollable attributions (M. Lewis, 1992, 2003;
Mills, 2005). For example, attributing failure in an exam to uncontrollable factors such
as low ability is likely to induce shame rather than any other emotions (Brown &
Weiner, 1984; Weiner, 1985).
Tangney, Wagner, and Gramzow (1992) investigated the association between
shame-proneness, psychopathology, and attribution style. Examining several samples
of undergraduate students, these authors found that the tendency to make internal,
stable, and global attributions regarding negative incidents was highly and positively
associated with proneness to shame. Specifically, participants who stated that they
tended to hide after making a mistake at work (shame-prone individuals) were also
inclined to attribute someone’s hostility to their own personal characteristics, an
indication of stable and global attribution (Tangney & Dearing, 2002). More
importantly, the results of this study demonstrated that individuals’ affective styles
(shame-proneness and guilt-proneness) explained a significant variance in depression
over and above the variance explained by attribution style. The findings from the
regression analysis indicated that, although shame-proneness and attribution style are
significantly correlated, they are not the same constructs. After controlling for the effect
of attributional style, shame explained an additional 8-15% variance in depression
(Tangney & Dearing, 2002).
Encouraged by cognitive-attributional and appraisal theories, Tracy and Robins
(2004, 2007b) proposed the appraisal-based model of self-conscious emotions.
According to this model, when encountering a situation, the first evaluative step is to
see whether the situation ‚is relevant to survival goals (Tracy & Robins, 2007b, p. 9). If
the event is considered pertinent to survival goals, it will induce one of the basic
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emotions. However, if the circumstance is not relevant to survival goals, it will not
evoke any basic emotions.
In the next step, the model suggests that individuals will consider whether the
event is relevant for the self. If a situation is meaningful for the self and focuses on the
self, related self-representations might be activated explicitly or implicitly, which in
turn leads to self-evaluation. Self-representations may include the actual self, the ideal
self or the ‘ought’ self. They may also include private aspects of the self or of the public
self. As indicated by this theory, only after the activation of self-representations are self-
conscious emotions generated (Tracy & Robins, 2007b).
Once self-representations are activated, events can be evaluated to see whether
they are important for identity goals, such as: Does it matter for who I am or would like to
be?” (Tracy & Robins, 2007b, p.10). According to the model, only when self-
representations are considered important for identity goals can self-conscious emotions
be evoked. However, if there are no identity concerns, no self-conscious emotions will
be generated.
The next aspect involves identity-goal congruence. This step governs the valence
of emotions. If the event is consistent with one’s goals, it elicits positive emotions,
whereas if the event is not consistent with one’s identity goals, it elicits negative
Individuals are then motivated to identify the cause of the event. By using a
series of evaluations, individuals determine whether the event has an internal or
external cause. If an individual makes an internal attribution for the event, self-
conscious emotions result. For example, if someone makes a negative internal
attribution regarding failure in an exam, he or she is likely to feel shame or guilt.
However, if he or she makes a positive attribution, feelings of pride will be elicited.
External attributions evoke basic emotions such as anger.
Furthermore, according to this model, in order to distinguish between self-
conscious emotions (shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride), it is essential to consider
other causal attributions such as stability (stable and invariant), controllability
(controllable vs. uncontrollable) and globality (the individual as a whole or some aspect
of the person). The model predicts that shame is evoked by internal, uncontrollable,
stable, and global attributions, while guilt is elicited by internal, controllable, unstable,
and specific (not global) attributions. Embarrassment can occur only when individuals
pay attention to the public self and when public self-representations are activated.
Internal attributions are sufficient for embarrassment to occur. No complex cognitive
ability or further attributions are needed to evoke embarrassment.
In support of this theory, Tracy and Robins (2006) conducted a series of studies.
In one of these studies, they asked participants to indicate how they felt about their
current grade point average. They then asked a trained analyst to code the contents of
the participants’ responses and determine whether the participants thought the grades
that they had received depended on internal causes, such as ability, or on external
causes, such as effort. In addition, the level of controllability that the participants
thought they had over a situation was determined. It was found that internal
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attributions were associated with feelings of guilt and shame. Furthermore, students
who attributed their low grades to their abilities (an internal, stable, and uncontrollable
cause) were more likely to express shame, while those students who attributed their
low grades to their effort (an internal, unstable, controllable cause) were more likely to
feel guilt.
Considering attributions in shame from a different perspective, Yi and
Baumgartner (2011) asked participants to recall a recent experience of impulse buying,
and then indicate how they felt after buying that item. It was found that impulsive
shoppers who attributed the outcome to stable and uncontrollable aspects (for example,
my impulse buying reflects my weak self‛, p.459) were more likely to feel shame than
those who attributed the outcome to unstable and controllable aspects (for example, ‚I
got temporarily carried away by a discount”, p.459). According to the authors, encouraging
impulse buyers to attribute their impulse shopping to situational and short-term
factors, instead of to fixed and global elements, may induce guilt rather than feelings of
shame which, in turn, may help individuals to use problem-focused strategies rather
than avoidance-based methods to cope with their feelings.
1.5.3 Rank, status, dominance, and shame
Social ranking theory (Gilbert & McGuire, 1998; Gilbert, 2000) proposes that shame
arises as a result of one’s perception of one’s social status/rank. In social situations,
people compete with each other for acceptance, approval, and attractiveness. People
want to be desired, chosen, and valued, rather than being avoided or rejected.
According to this theory, shame results when one views oneself as a being of relatively
low social rank or in an unwanted subordinate position. For example, someone may see
him/herself as having personal attributes (body-shape, size), personality characteristics
(boring and dishonest), or as engaged in behaviour (stealing and lying) that others will
find unattractive or unacceptable. This person may think that he or she is flawed,
inadequate, and inferior. In addition, the said person may become vulnerable to
criticism and social put-downs (Gilbert & Miles, 2000), or act submissively (Gilbert,
2000). Therefore, according to this theory, those who are in low status positions, for
whatever reasons, are more prone to experiencing shame. Empirical findings
corroborate that shame is highly correlated with feelings of inferiority/submissiveness
(Birchwood et al., 2006). For example, Gilbert (2000) found that those participants who
scored highly for three measures of shame also rated their relative social rank as low on
a social comparison scale (e.g., ‚In relation to others I feel inferior‛, p.179), but had higher
scores on the submissive behaviour scale (e.g., "I agreed I was wrong even though I knew I
wasn’t,” p.179). In other words, feelings of shame were significantly associated with the
perceptions of low social rank and expressions of submissive actions.
It seems that whether we focus on the issue of rank, status, or dominance
regarding shame, or whether we believe that shame, like most negative emotions,
involves a comparison of the self to the perfect image (or becoming someone who we
would not like to be), or whether we consider that shame arises as a result of negative
attribution styles, we conclude that the experience of shame involves a negative self-
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image. Even in cognitive-attributional theories of shame, if one does not have a negative
self-image, why does a person attribute a negative event to the self? Negative self-image
seems to fertilise and make it possible for shame to occur and grow or vice versa. In
Table 1.1, we see how the conceptualisation of shame has evolved or changed over the
years. The notion that shame is a self-related emotion and highly negative is evident in
most of these theories.
Table 1.1: Conceptualisation of Shame from Different Perspectives
Conceptualisation of shame
Becoming exposed and self-conscious, related to
physical/body performances such as toilet training
Differences between the ego and the ego-ideal
A primitive innate affect. It occurs when there is
disturbance/interruption or an abrupt end to
excitement or joy
The self is considered bad;
a discrepancy between actual/own and ideal/other
Making internal, stable, and uncontrollable
attribution, attributing a negative incident to the
Realisation of low status/rank, feeling inferior and
1.6 Expression and Body Responses in Shame
The most commonly identified non-verbal expressions of shame include gaze aversion,
a downward head, slumped shoulders, and a collapsed posture (Keltner & Buswell,
1996; Keltner & Harker, 1998). Of these, body movements such as drooping shoulders
and a slumped posture seem to be important indicators in the recognition of shame.
This might be because shame does not have unique or exclusive facial expressions
(Ferguson & Stegge, 1995). For instance, gaze aversion, downward head movements,
and blushing can also occur when someone feels shy or is embarrassed (Crozier, 2014).
As a result, observers tend to be less accurate in identifying non-verbal
expressions of shame in comparison to basic emotions (Keltner & Buswell, 1996). For
example, the level of accuracy for recognising emotions such as anger or disgust is
above 80%, while the level of accuracy for identifying shame is about 50-60% (Keltner &
Harker, 1998). Supposedly, the level of accuracy could be lower depending on the
comparison emotions. It is difficult to imagine how individuals in the state of shame
could be differentiated from those who have been humiliated, for example. Thus,
identifying and recognising shame based body language might be complex and
Looking at bodily responses, when experiencing shame, the indicators include
blushing (Crozier, 2004, 2014), increased body temperature, and sweating. In fact, these
responses are very similar and associated with physiological arousal responses that
occur with anxiety and stress (Gilbert, 1998, 2002).
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Dickerson and colleagues (Dickerson, Gruenewald, & Kemeny, 2004; Grunewald
et al., 2007) posited that shame evokes a series of psychological and physiological
responses, such as an increase in cytokine activity and cortisol. More specifically, these
researchers stated that events that threaten the social self-elicit activation of the
hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) and proinflammatory immune systems, leading to the
release of the HPA hormone cortisol and inflammatory cytokines‛ (Gruenewald et al., 2007, p.
Recent research confirms a link between shame (and other negative self-
evaluative states) and increased levels of cortisol and proinflammatory cytokine
activity. For example, in one study, participants who were induced to experience self-
blame and threats to their social self by writing about their personal experiences, not
only experienced a higher level of shame in comparison to other negative emotions,
they also showed a heightened level of proinflammatory cytokine (Dickerson, Kemeny,
Aziz, Kim, & Fahey, 2004). Similarly, Dickerson, Gable, Irwin, Aziz, and Kemeny (2009)
found that female participants who were asked to give a speech or perform a math test
in front of an evaluative audience (a social evaluative threat) showed an increase in
proinflammatory cytokine in comparison to those who performed the tasks without the
presence of an evaluative audience. Furthermore, M. Lewis and Ramsay (2002)
demonstrated that four-year old children, who expressed signs of shame and evaluative
embarrassment after failing a colour-matching task in a laboratory, also had a higher
cortisol response.
Moreover, empirical evidence indicates that experiencing low social status may
affirm a continuous threat to the social self (a chronic experience of shame), which in
turn may forecast health problems. In this regard, Dickerson, Gruenewald, et al. (2004)
found that HIV patients who were stigmatised and rejected because of their sexual
orientation died on average two years before those who were not stigmatised.
However, HIV patients who experienced other negative emotions such as anger,
anxiety, or sadness did not experience a CD4 T-Cell decline over seven years
(Gruenewald et al., 2007). To put it differently, shame seems to be the only negative
emotion that predicts health outcomes in people who have been shunned and rejected.
1.7 Classification for Shame
In this part, in order to better understand the impact of shame, it is important to look at
the ways shame has been classified in the scholarly literature, namely state shame,
chronic (trait) shame, shame-proneness, internal shame, and external shame.
1.7.1 State shame, chronic (trait) shame, and shame-proneness
Although often neglected, state shame can be differentiated from trait shame. In
general, at the state level, emotions produce momentary reactions to emotion-inducing
events that do not have long-lasting effects. They may evoke particular thoughts or
motivate specific behaviours but, after some time, their effect will subside and
individuals can function normally. At the trait level, however, emotions are experienced
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frequently and have severe impacts on life functions and adaptability (Ferguson &
Stegge, 1995).
Correspondingly, state shame refers to a transient feeling of shame in response to
a particular situation (Goss, Gilbert, & Allan, 1994). At the state level, shame may
regulate social interaction, and increase humility or conformity (Ferguson & Stegge,
1995). In retrospective studies of shame, participants are often asked to recall or
describe a personal episode of the state of shame versus the state of guilt (Tangney,
1992). The experience of shame is often accompanied by a feeling of being self-
conscious, exposed or inferior, lacking power, feeling inhibited, and results in a faster
heartbeat, muscle tensing, and being hot or flushed (Turner, 2014; Wallbott & Scherer,
1989; Wicker, Payne, & Morgan, 1983). Although the experience of shame is unpleasant
and people often try to avoid it, state shame is not an indicator of an emotional
disorder. On the contrary, inability to experience shame is often unacceptable and, to
some extent, a sign of immorality (Tantam, 1998).
Trait shame (chronic) shame refers to a frequent or constant feeling of shame.
Trait shame may be a state of being rather than an emotional state (Tantam, 1998). At
the trait level, an individual’s identity is pervaded by a sense of worthlessness,
inadequacy, and helplessness (Ferguson & Stegge, 1995). Some shame theorists, such as
Tangney and her colleagues, believe that a corresponding trait or disposition for state
shame is shame-proneness, which is defined as a propensity to experience shame in
response to a range of negative situations (Tangney, 1996). In particular, Tangney (1996)
contended that shame-prone individuals (as opposed to guilt-prone individuals)
experience shame more easily when they are in a specific negative situation.
Harper (2011) suggested that trait shame may arise because one is frequently
suppressed or put down. In this situation, the said person may internalise the feeling of
shame, and shame becomes part of his/her identity and disposition. Similarly, Tantam
(1998) stated that frequent reminders of one’s faults and awareness of such faults may
lead to the development of trait shame.
Unsurprisingly, trait shame and shame-proneness are associated with a wide
variety of psychological symptoms. For example, trait shame or shame-proneness often
have stronger associations with psychological problems such as depression and anxiety
than does state shame (Allan, Gilbert, & Goss, 1994; Rusch et al., 2007).
Literature regarding shame focuses heavily on dispositional shame (Leeming &
Boyle, 2002). Some researchers concentrate on shame-proneness (being susceptible to
the experience of shame in response to particular situations), some pay more attention
to global shame (feeling shame frequently, irrespective of particular situations), and
some focus on trait shame in a specific domain such as feeling shame about physical
appearance, ethnicity, and education (Andrews, 1998).
State shame is usually examined when shame is induced in experimental studies
or when participants are asked to recall a personal shame-inducing episode. However,
it should be noted that there is no strict boundary between state shame and trait shame.
A person who is prone to the experience of shame and high in trait shame is also more
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likely to experience shame in response to a specific shame-inducing situation (state
1.7.2 Internal and external shame
Gilbert (1998, 2000, 2003) differentiated between ‚feeling shameand ‚being shamed‛. He
suggested that when an individual feels shame about his/her own attributes, this is
internal shame (feeling shame); this emerges when an individual evaluates and judges
the self negatively and sees the self negatively. According to Gilbert (1998), individuals
may also feel shame because others see and judge them negatively. This is known as
external shame, and occurs when one thinks that, in the minds of others; he/she will be
rejected or attacked. In other words, an individual feels shame because others have a
negative image of the self and he/she sees the self through their eyes. For example,
someone may not reveal his or her sexual orientation to colleagues or family members
because he/she is afraid of negative judgement or unfair treatment. The said person
does not feel shame internally per se; however, external situations may lead him/her to
feel ashamed (Gilbert, 1998). The idea that shame is experienced as a result of others’
image of the self resembles Cooley’s (1902, p.183) concept of the looking-glass self,‛
which refers to the notion that people evaluate themselves as they believe others see
them (see also Scheff, 2000). In this regard, it is worth pointing out that individuals
usually evaluate themselves not only based on how others really view them, but also
based on how they think others see or evaluate them (Hogg & Vaughan, 2008; Shrauger
& Schoeneman, 1979). It is possible to not feel shame even if others consider the self
negatively; however, it is unlikely that one will not feel shame when the self is
evaluated negatively by the self (Gilbert, 2000). In other words, external shame does not
lead to internal shame necessarily, while internal shame can have a great impact on
feelings of external shame.
2. Shame and Other Constructs
People in the general population often have difficulty in distinguishing shame from
similar emotions and constructs, such as guilt and embarrassment (Tangney & Dearing,
2002). It is the case that the terms shame and guilt are used interchangeably. However,
research has documented that feeling shame is very different from feeling guilt,
embarrassment, or shyness, and has different consequences. In order to understand
what feelings of shame entail, it is necessary to examine the difference between shame
and other similar constructs.
2.1 Shame and Guilt
The distinction between shame and guilt has been highly influenced by the work of
psychoanalyst Helen. B. Lewis (1971). After examining clinical cases, she concluded that
a fundamental difference between shame and guilt lies in the role of the self. In shame,
the focus of evaluation is on the self (e.g., I was a bad person), while the focus of
evaluation in guilt is on behaviour (e.g., my action was bad or I did a bad thing).
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Pursuing H. B. Lewis’ line of work, Tangney and colleagues (see Tangney & Dearing,
2002) have provided evidence for the dissimilarities between shame and guilt over the
past three decades. Some of the strongest support for this notion comes from a series of
studies conducted by Niedenthal, Tangney, and Gavanski (1994). In these studies,
participants were asked to recall a personal experience of shame/guilt (Study 1c), or to
put themselves in situations that are shame/guilt-inducing (Studies 1a and 1b). They
were then asked to produce counterfactuals in order to change the problematic
situations. It is interesting that, regarding experiences of shame, participants were
inclined to undo aspects of themselves (‚if only I weren’t‛), while in guilt experiences
they tended to undo specific behaviour (‚if only I hadn’t). This is one of the main
reasons why the feeling of guilt is regarded as a less critical and harmful emotion than
that of shame.
Furthermore, it is a common belief that there is a difference between the action
tendencies of shame and guilt. Shame seems to be associated with avoidance-related
tendencies, such as avoiding shame-eliciting situations, withdrawing from others or
hiding. Guilt, on the other hand, is related to approach tendencies, such as approaching
others and trying to repair the damage done, for example by apologising. Guilt may
encourage a change in actions (Sheikh & Janoff-Bulman, 2010; Yi & Baumgartner, 2011).
As noted, in shame, the focus is on the self, whereas in guilt, individuals are able to
focus on the wellbeing of others (Joireman, 2004). This is why guilt has been associated
with perspective-taking and empathy towards others, while in shame the
preoccupation with the self is at odds with the other-oriented nature of empathy
(Parker & Thomas, 2009). Shame-prone individuals tend to be self-absorbed and
oblivious to others’ needs or requests (Tangney & Dearing, 2002). It could be assumed
that shame, especially chronic shame and shame-proneness, makes interpersonal
encounters difficult not because ashamed individuals do not feel empathy, but because
they are too self-conscious to show their true emotions and vulnerabilities. They find
social situations threatening and potentially shaming; hence, they avoid them as much
as possible.
Conventionally, shame is viewed as a public emotion and guilt as a private
emotion. The experience of shame results from public exposure. In other words,
individuals feel shame when their transgression has been seen and revealed publicly. In
this line of thought, Smith, Webster, Parrott, and Eyre (2002) found that when
participants’ failings were seen by others, they felt a stronger sense of shame than they
did of guilt. More specifically, this research (Studies 1 and 2) demonstrated that, in
hypothetical shame and guilt-related situations, when a transgression occurred in
public and an antagonist was exposed, participants assumed that the antagonist would
feel more shame than when a transgression occurred in private. However, with regard
to guilt, the public versus private situation did not matter. Participants assumed that
the antagonist would feel the same level of guilt in public as well as in private.
The notion that shame is a public emotion is to some extent in harmony with
Gilbert’s (1998, 2000) view of shame, which suggests that shame is related to social
ranking. When there is no audience, social ranking and status are essentially
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meaningless (Kim, Thibodeau, & Jorgensen, 2011). Nevertheless, support for the public
versus private nature of shame/guilt is contradictory. For instance, Tangney, Miller,
Flicker, and Barlow (1996) asked participants to recall personal experiences of shame,
guilt, and embarrassment. Their findings indicated that shame is not a more public
emotion than is guilt. According to their analyses, both shame and guilt occurred
mainly and equally in public. However, 10.4% of the participants’ guilt experiences and
18.2% of their shame experiences happened in private. The literature suggests that
shame is a relatively individualised emotion and does not have unique triggers. The
common view is that the same situation can induce shame in one person and guilt in
another. It depends on how the role of self is interpreted, not whether the situation
takes place publicly or privately (Parker & Thomas, 2009). Nevertheless, it should be
mentioned that shamed individuals feel exposed. Although shame probably does not
require an actual audience or witness, often the thought of how one’s shortcomings will
appear to others is salient in the experience of shame (Tangney & Dearing, 2002). The
fear of negative evaluation is present in the experience of shame. This is perhaps why
shame is often assumed to be a more public/social emotion than is guilt.
2.2 Shame and Embarrassment
Some scholars believe that shame and embarrassment are very similar (see Crozier,
2014, for a review). They argue that the only difference between these two emotions is
their level of intensity. Embarrassment is believed to be a milder form of state shame
(M. Lewis, 1995, 1998).
M. Lewis (1998, 2000) suggested that there are two types of embarrassment. The
first type is less intense than shame. It occurs when an individual fails to meet personal
goals that are not crucial for the identity of that person. For example, if driving is
strongly related to one’s core identity, failing at it may evoke a feeling of shame.
However, if driving is not particularly relevant for that person, failing at it may be
embarrassing rather than shaming. Secondly, people sometimes become embarrassed
purely because of their presence being acknowledged. This is known as exposure
embarrassment.” For instance, being complimented or praised for something in front of
large audience may induce feelings of embarrassment.
Surprisingly, Tangney, Miller, et al. (1996) found that shame and embarrassment
have less in common than do embarrassment and guilt. Embarrassed people believed
that they were victims of situations. They even found embarrassing situations funny
and amusing to some extent, rather than painful and intense. Embarrassing situations
seemed to be more accidental (people said they felt awkward).
In cognitive-attributional theories, embarrassment is considered either non-
evaluative (M. Lewis, 2003) or less cognition-dependent (Tracy & Robins, 2004). It
happens when attention is focused on the public self. It requires attributions to internal
causes, but does not command any further attributions, and can occur in response to
stable or unstable and controllable or uncontrollable causes (Tracy & Robins, 2006,
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Furthermore, Keltner and Buswell (1996) claimed that embarrassment is
associated more with the violation of conventions, whereas shame is related more to
personal failure. These authors found that the most common antecedents of
embarrassment were physical pitfalls, cognitive shortcomings (such as forgetting a
name), loss of control over the body (vomiting), and shortcomings in physical
appearance, such as walking around with toilet paper stuck to one’s shoe.
Nonetheless, Sabini, Garvey, and Hall (2001) argued that tripping or falling, for
instance, are not violations of convention, but can be viewed as a personal failure. They
argued that if someone’s real weakness is revealed, he /she is likely to feel shame. If
from one’s own standpoint no real flaw is revealed, but other people think that such a
flaw has been revealed, that person may feel embarrassment or anger. It depends on
whether or not it is sensible for the audience to believe that such a flaw exists.
After examining the literature, Crozier (2014) found that shame is usually
differentiated from embarrassment according to the following criteria: intensity (shame
is more intense than embarrassment); duration (shame lasts longer); self (shame is
related to negative self-evaluation and a flawed self); breaking social rules (shame is
related to a breach of fundamental rules); morality (shame is associated with morality);
audience (need for an audience in embarrassment); physiological differences (blushing
is associated with embarrassment); uncertainty (after embarrassment, individuals feel
confused); and non-verbal expression (laughter in embarrassment). However, after
critically considering the proposed distinctions, Crozier (2014) concluded that no
consensus exists in the literature regarding the differences between shame and
embarrassment. For example, while some researchers believe that laughter occurs after
embarrassment, others argue that laughter follows shame in order to reduce its impact.
2.3 Shame and Low Self-esteem
Theoretically, shame and self-esteem are different (Tangney & Dearing, 2002). Self-
esteem is mostly considered as a self-evaluative construct. Shame, however, is usually
regarded as an emotion that has cognitive elements (Blum, 2008). Furthermore, self-
esteem is a general evaluation of the self, whereas shame is likely to be a negative
evaluation of the self in relation to a specific situation (Andrews, 1998; Tangney, 1996).
Andrews (1998) has suggested that negative self-evaluation may be an essential part of
shame, but that it is not sufficient as a definition of shame.
Nevertheless, Gilbert (1998) argued that the way in which self-esteem is defined
in the self-esteem literature is very similar to how shame-proneness is described. Along
this line, Brown and Marshall (2001) found that self-esteem and self-conscious
emotions, such as shame and pride, are associated. Specifically, individuals with high
self-esteem tended to experience pride, while those with low self-esteem were inclined
to feel shame (Brown & Marshall, 2001). This may also indicate that the negative
feelings reported by people with low self-esteem are usually feelings of shame (Tracy &
Robins, 2004).
Tangney and Dearing (2002) reported a modest correlation between shame-
proneness and self-esteem (r = -.42). They stipulated that a bidirectional link exists
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between self-esteem and shame. Tangney and Dearing also postulated that individuals
who are shame-prone do not necessarily have low self-esteem, or vice versa. According
to their argument, it is possible to have high self-esteem but also to be shame-prone. For
instance, one may have a positive image of the self (as worthy and likable), while still
being shame-prone. One may easily experience shame when there is failure or a
negative incident. Similarly, these authors suggested that it is possible to have low self-
esteem but not to feel shame in response to transgressions or failures.
2.4 Shame and Shyness
Mosher and White (1981) distinguished shame from shyness and stated that the
experience of shame in real life situations is more intense and unpleasant than shyness,
and they argued that it is not acceptable to use shyness and shame interchangeably.
Shyness seems to be a non-evaluative emotion. It is more closely related to fear than to
self-evaluation. Therefore, no cognitive complexities are needed to feel shy. Shy people
become apprehensive and uncomfortable in social situations. Shyness is likely to be
biologically given, as it has been observed in three-month old infants, while shame
appears at around the age of 18 months (Blum, 2008; M. Lewis, 2000). However, it is
debatable to what extent shyness can be considered as a non-evaluative emotion. At
times, self-evaluation and evaluation of situations are likely to be present when
individuals experience shyness.
2.5 Shame and Humiliation
Humiliation includes a sense of being ridiculed, scorned, or degraded by others (Klein,
1991). Humiliated individuals do not feel responsible for a negative event. They blame
others or situations, not themselves, for their profound loss of dignity. They probably
attribute the source of the event to external causes rather than to internal causes.
Humiliated people think that they are victims of situations (Tantam, 1998). In order to
feel humiliation, a victim, a humiliator, and an observer are usually required (Klein,
1991). The victim is powerless, while the humiliator is in power. Shame is more
connected with feelings of the self about the self, while people who feel humiliated
think that they do not deserve to be humiliated and treated in such a way. For example,
a person who has cheated on his or her spouse might feel shame, while the person who
has been cheated on is most likely to feel humiliated (Klein, 1991).
The important thing to remember when we look at all the above distinctions is
that these emotions can occur simultaneously. For instance, a person who has cheated
on his/her spouse might feel guilt as well as shame, and we often hear statements such
as that was so humiliating, I feel so embarrassed in day-to-day conversation. Thus, it is
vital to acknowledge that the difference between emotions can be easily blurred. In
addition, there is a possibility that what we feel at the first instance (primary emotion)
can change or be substituted with another emotion very quickly (secondary emotion).
Therefore, distinguishing these emotions in some situations might be complex. A
summary of these differences is presented in the following figure.
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Figure 1.1: Differences between shame and similar constructs
Self is bad, self-orientated
Avoidance tendencies
Action is bad, other-orientated
Approach tendencies
Shame versus Guilt
Shame versus Embarrassment
Intense, evaluative, real flaw
personal failure
Less intense, no real flaw
violation of conventions
Shame versus Self-esteem
Emotion, evaluation of the self in
specific situations
Cognitive construct, general
evaluation of the self
Shame versus Shyness
Evaluative emotion, more
intense, does not exist at birth
Related to fear than self-
evaluation, biologically given
Shame versus Humiliation
The self is wrong, might be
The self is victim, not responsible
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3. Shame, Culture, and Demographic Variables
This section will look at how shame is experienced in different cultures, whether it can
be vicarious, and consider the effect of demographic variables such as age and gender
on shame.
3.1 Cultural Differences in Shame
Wallbott and Scherer (1995) demonstrated that shame is experienced differently in
collectivist cultures, such as Mexico, Venezuela, India, Brazil, and Chile, and in
individualist cultures like Sweden, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, and the United
States. In comparison to individualistic cultures, the experience of shame in collectivist
cultures was reported as having a shorter duration and a less negative effect on self-
esteem, as being less immoral and being followed by laughing or smiling (Wallbott &
Scherer, 1995).
This seems to be due to the idea that, in a collectivist culture, the self is
interdependent and people tend to see themselves in relation to others (Kitayama,
Markus, & Matsumoto, 1995). Therefore, in many collectivist cultures, shame is more
likely to be determined by social roles rather than by personal failure (Crystal, Parrott,
Okazaki, & Watanabe, 2001). In these cultures, shame is no longer an individual
experience, but is associated with cultural values and standards, and conforming to the
cultural rules is essential for avoiding feelings of shame (Greenwald & Harder, 1998).
Those who do not behave according to the cultural values or conventional norms are
not only shamed, but also bring shame to their communities. Hence, in order to restore
the social image and to claim lost ‚honour,‛ those who tarnish the social reputation and
violate the social rules are usually punished harshly (Cohen, Vandello, & Rantilla,
1998). For instance, honour killings or similar accounts demonstrate that the
perpetrators, who are often members of a family or social group, take drastic measures
in order to save the social image and family reputation (Lindisfarne, 1998).
Unsurprisingly, individuals in collectivist cultures are more likely to experience
shame when they are around others, because they are more attuned to the presence of
others (Wong & Tsai, 2007). Moreover, the distinction between shame and guilt is less
clear in collectivist cultures than it is in individualistic cultures (but also see Wallbott &
Scherer, 1995, for an opposing view).
Although the experience of shame is unlikely to be positive (Edelstein & Shaver,
2007), in many collectivist cultures shame is considered to be constructive, adaptive,
informational, and motivational. For instance, 43.5% of Indian students viewed shame
as more similar to happiness than to anger, while the majority of American students
believed that shame and anger are more similar. In fact, only 6% of Americans thought
that shame and happiness share some similarities (Rozin, 2003). The Indian students
believed that shame and happiness are similar, because they consider both of these
emotions as socially effective and constructive, while the Americans viewed shame and
anger as similar because they are both negative (Rozin, 2003). In a similar manner,
Chinese parents are more likely to implement shame strategies in dealing with their
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children than are American parents, because they believe that shaming methods can be
rehabilitating (Wong & Tsai, 2007).
Furthermore, Fischer, Manstead, and Rodriguez Mosquera (1999) demonstrated
that individuals from an honour-based culture such as Spanish viewed shame more
positively than did participants from an individualist culture (Dutch). For instance,
when describing their experiences of shame, Spanish participants focused more on
other people and their relationship with them, whereas Dutch participants focused
more on their own personal experiences and feelings of self-failure (Rodriguez
Mosquera, Manstead, & Fischer, 2000).
Culture also affects how individuals respond to the experience of shame. For
example, the experience of shame for Filipino salespeople, who come from an
interdependent-oriented culture, is associated with social involvement and an attempt
to rebuild social contacts with customers, while Dutch salespersons, who belong to an
independent-oriented culture, tend to use defensive mechanisms such as avoiding
conversations with consumers in order to protect their self-image after experiencing
shame (Bagozzi, Verbeke, & Gavino, 2003).
3.2 Shame in a Group Context
There is a great likelihood that individuals experience chronic shame as a result of their
membership of a specific group. For example, ethnic minorities, immigrants, or those
with an alternative lifestyle may feel ashamed because of their membership in low-
status or stigmatised groups (Greenwald & Harder, 1998). In this regard, Keltner and
Harker (1998) argued that even observers tend to assign feelings of shame to women or
African Americans, who stereotypically belong to low-status groups.
In addition, people are blamed and stigmatised for the negative behaviour of
their in-group. For example, family members of people with mental or drug/alcohol
problems experience significant stigma and shame (Corrigan, Watson, & Miller, 2006).
Our social groups are a very important part of our identity, so the actions or status of
our in-group has implications for the self. In particular, negative behaviour on the part
of our group’s members may damage our self-image, threaten our social identity, and
negatively affect our social standing (Lickel, Schmader, & Spanovic, 2007; Schmader &
Lickel, 2006).
Johns, Schmader, and Lickel (2005) demonstrated that Americans who identify
strongly with their nationality reported feeling shame when other Americans showed
prejudice towards out-groups (for example, people of Middle Eastern descent, after the
September 11th attacks). Nonetheless, individuals are likely to feel shame in response to
an in-group’s behaviour if they feel that the person’s action is relevant to them and they
share an identity with that particular group and with the wrongdoer (Lickel, Schmader,
Curtis, Scarnie, & Ames, 2005). For example, German participants reported that they
would experience a significant amount of shame in regard to the holocaust and
treatment of the Jews in front of out-groups (such as in front of a foreigner or a Jewish
person) but not when they were with their in-group (with other Germans) or alone
(Dresler-Hawke & Liu, 2006).
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In addition, studies suggest that, after vicarious shame, some participants are
motivated to distance themselves from the shameful events (Lickel et al., 2005), while
others may engage in activities in order to restore the damaged group’s image (Lickel et
al., 2007). It is interesting that, as Gunn and Wilson (2011) demonstrated, group
affirmation assists individuals to express shame over the mistreatment of out-groups,
which may in turn facilitate reparatory attitudes and actions. For example, in their
study, Canadians who were asked to choose the most important value for Canadians
and to indicate why this value was important to them and why they had selected this
particular value (group affirmation condition), expressed greater shame over the
mistreatment of and injustice towards Aboriginals, and they showed a greater tendency
towards compensatory actions.
3.3 Shame and Demographic Characteristics
Research has shown that shame decreases from adolescence to middle age, and then
increases into old age. In addition, wealthy individuals report feeling less shame than
do less privileged individuals (Orth, Robins, & Soto, 2010). In fact, the experience of
shame is very common among poor and working class individuals (Power, Cole, &
Fredrickson, 2010). They may feel shame merely because of being poor, or because of
being stigmatised for being poor. Social class also triggers shame, even for those who
are educated and have a high status in society, but who emerge from a working class
background (Brown, 2007).
Furthermore, women report more shame than men (M. Lewis, 1992; Orth et al.,
2010). It sometimes seems that, regardless of gender, those individuals with a feminine
gender role feel a higher level of shame than do those with a masculine gender role
(Benetti-McQuoid & Bursik, 2005). Gross and Hansen (2000) proposed that investment
in relatedness, which refers to valuing close personal relationships with others, to be
connected, loved and cared for, mediates the relationship between gender and shame.
They found that after controlling for relatedness, the effect of gender on shame
Women are socialised differently from men (M. Lewis, 1992). For instance,
Brown (2012) asserted that her qualitative work on shame and vulnerability implicated
that one of the main triggers of shame for women is their appearance, while for men it
is their weakness/power. Men do not want to be viewed as weak or ‚girly‛. This is
exactly what culture imposes and the media promotes an extensive focus on women’s
appearance and men’s masculinity.
Objectification theory proposes that self-objectification, seeing oneself as an
object and putting a high value on one’s appearance, increases the feeling of shame
about one’s body (Grabe, Hyde, & Lindberg, 2007; Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008). Even a
compliment about one’s appearance increases body shame among those who are high
in self-objectification (Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008). Specifically, in the current
atmosphere in which culture is highly appearance-oriented, sexual objectification often
targets and affects women more than it does men, forces girls and women to see
themselves as objects, and to evaluate their value based on their physical attributes or
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European Journal of Social Sciences Studies - Volume 3 Issue 3 2018 98
appearance (Roberts & Goldenberg, 2007). In media and culture, women’s appearance
has a far greater value than other characteristics (Sanftner & Tantillo, 2011), and since
the idealised appearance and body are impossible to attain, and standards are
extremely narrow and rigorous (young, slim, white and so on), women are more prone
to experience bodily shame than men, and often tend to be judged and treated
negatively in social situations, such as at school and at work, merely because of their
appearance, even though this is irrelevant to their qualifications, experience, and
performance (Roberts & Goldenberg, 2007).
Thus, it can be said that culture and society put a lot of pressure on women with
regard to their appearance, age, and body. As a result, it is not unreasonable to assume
that these extra pressures contribute to the development of poor self-image, shame, and
self-esteem. For example, a recent report in England indicated that 18% of girls aged 10
to 13 were unhappy with their appearance, in comparison to 9% of boys (Lusher, 2014).
More importantly, this survey found that the way in which girls think about their
appearance and looks was perhaps a main contributor to the reduced wellbeing and
lower life satisfaction that was seen in girls.
4. Concluding remarks
This paper explored the concept of shame and its characteristics and nature. The first
section argued that shame is one of the self-conscious emotions; it starts to emerge
around 18-24 months. In shame, there is a feeling of inadequacy, unworthiness, and
inferiority. Shame can occur when someone makes internal, stable, uncontrollable, and
global attributions for a negative incident or when they feel they have a lower status in
relation to others. In the second section, there was analysis of the differences between
shame and similar constructs and how shame can be distinguished from guilt,
embarrassment, self-esteem, shyness, and humiliation. In the last section, I described
how shame is perceived in collectivist and individualist cultures. Previous research
indicates that shame can be vicarious and elicited as a result of particular group
membership. Women and people from underprivileged backgrounds, minorities, and
working class people are more prone to experience shame. It is necessary to further
study shame and expand our knowledge in this area in order to deal with it better and
manage it more appropriately.
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... Scholars differ in terms of the time that these emotions develop in humans. Some assume that both emotions emerge later starting from around the age of two (Neda, 2018) which is the time when children begin to see themselves as another self, while others argue that moral emotions emerge from between 6-8 years. This is because both moral emotions require complex cognitive ability, understanding of moral rules, understanding of the self as well as awareness of the consequences of one's actions on others (Malti & Ongley, 2014). ...
... Shame research identifies two forms of shame experiences, namely, (i) state or situational shame and (ii) trait or dispositional shame. State shame defined as "an acute, transient feeling in certain situations" while the second shame as a more enduring and pervasive feeling (Neda, 2018). Karen (1992) describes the state of shame as "a passing shame experience that arises from rejection, humiliation, allowing one's boundaries to be infringed, or violation of a social norm." ...
... On the other hand, trait or dispositional shame also known as shame-proneness occurs when an individual tend to internalise the feeling of shame, and shame becomes part of his/her identity and disposition. This form of shame might lead to variety of psychopathological problems (Neda, 2018). ...
... Shame comprises two dimensions [1]. Internal shame is related to the internal dynamics of the self and how the self judges and feels about itself [2], including tendencies to focus on negative aspects of the self and maintain global self-judgments of being bad, inferior, and flawed [3][4][5]. This type of shame is related to negative self-evaluations and self-directed affects, such as feelings of self-disgust [2]. ...
... Internal shame is related to the internal dynamics of the self and how the self judges and feels about itself [2], including tendencies to focus on negative aspects of the self and maintain global self-judgments of being bad, inferior, and flawed [3][4][5]. This type of shame is related to negative self-evaluations and self-directed affects, such as feelings of self-disgust [2]. On the other hand, external shame is associated with the perception that others have bad impressions of oneself, such as being inferior or worthless [6]. ...
... However, the EFA extracted isolation as a separate factor. Shame includes negative self-cognition [2,8]; however, the sense of isolation may have encompassed pure isolation that did not include critical self-recognition. For instance, meeting other people was restricted at the time of the study due to the COVID-19 pandemic. ...
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Objective: Shame contains external and internal aspects. However, a Japanese language scale for simultaneously assessing both aspects of shame has not been developed to date. This study aimed to standardize the Japanese version of the External and Internal Shame Scale (EISS-J). An online survey was conducted among university students (N = 203) at six universities in Japan (Study 1). A retest questionnaire was sent to the participants by email three weeks after the first survey (Study 2). Study 1 examined the internal consistency, factor structure, and criterion-related validity of the EISS-J, while Study 2 examined its test-retest reliability. Moreover, an additional study was conducted to examine the criterion-related validity of the scale. Results: Study 1 demonstrated the high internal consistency of the EISS-J. Moreover, confirmatory factor analysis indicated a two-factor model: external and internal shame. However, exploratory factor analysis indicated a three-factor structure. Study 2 confirmed the test-retest reliability of the scale. Furthermore, both studies indicated correlations between the EISS-J and fear of compassion, anger, humiliation, depression, anxiety, and stress. In addition, the study established the criterion-related validity of the scale. These results confirmed adequate reliability and validity of the EISS-J.
... In the psychology literature, shame is often described in contrast to guilt. Both are 'selfconscious emotions,' alongside embarrassment and pride (Lewis 1992;Sedighimornani 2018;Tangney 1998;Budiarto and Helmi 2021). Self-conscious emotions are those which are "evoked by self-reflection and self-evaluation" (Tangney 2001: 13803). ...
... Of this set of emotions, shame, in particular, has been vilified of late. Sedighimornani writes that shame is often discussed with reluctance because of the negative feelings that accompany it (Sedighimornani 2018(Sedighimornani : 2501. Psychologist J.P. Tangney notes that American society has become "shame-phobic," opting to "use the word 'guilt'…when they mean they felt shame, guilt, or some combination of the two" (Tangney et al. 2008: 2). ...
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There are many reasons to worry about shame in moral development. Shame can be employed for bad ends, such as manipulation and making others feel powerless. Shame is often associated with denial and hiding behaviors, social phobia, and anxiety. It is also not a motivation suitable for performing virtuous actions. This article argues that, nevertheless, well-ordered shame plays an indispensable and constructive role, as part of a mixed-methods approach in the development of moral character. This article assesses various reasons why shame has fallen out of favor among Western moral educators and demonstrates why each of these reasons falls short of providing a compelling case against employing shame. It defends shame on epistemic and virtue developmental grounds. Moreover, it proposes ways to employ shame in character education, while mitigating potential damages and avoiding the concerns raised by social scientists.
... Voksne pasienter opp lever ofte brekninger (og andre fysiologiske reaksjoner knyttet til angst) som svaert skamfullt. Det kan bli noe som de vil skjule for andre (33). Dette kan få konsekvenser for sosialt samspill også i tannbehandlingssituasjonen. ...
Hovedbudskap Brekningsrefleksen kan være et hinder for god oral helse og evnen til å gjennomføre oral undersøkelse og tannbehandling Refleksen hindrer aspirasjon av fremmedlegeme til halsen, men kan forsterkes av psykiske og sosiale faktorer i pasientens liv Ekstreme brekninger kan behandles, men krever spesifikk kunnskap om opprettholdende faktorer og behandling
... First, shame can be defined as a painful self-conscious emotion, usually triggered in social contexts when someone is aware they are being seen negatively by others. It evokes a cognitive component of being different, unattractive, or inadequate and a behavioral component that includes the desire to hide, avoid eye contact, or engage in submissive behavior (Gilbert, 2007;Sedighimornanii, 2018). Interpersonal consequences of shame have been consistently demonstrated. ...
Background Social safeness has been proposed as the individual's perception of the social world as being warmth and soothing. The lack of social safeness has been suggested as a transdiagnostic socio-emotional vulnerability for several mental health difficulties. To date there was no study addressing experiences of social safeness in adolescents. Objective To validate and study the psychometric properties of the Social Safeness and Pleasure Scale to Portuguese adolescents from community and residential care homes. Participants and setting A total of 731 Portuguese adolescents from community and residential youth care homes participated on this study. The community sample was composed of adolescents recruited from regular schools (208 boys; 224 girls). The residential youth care sample was composed of adolescents placed in residential care homes (145 boys; 154 girls). Methods A confirmatory factor analysis was conducted, and measurement invariance investigated. Results A one-factor solution presented a good fit across all samples and proved to be invariant (configural, metric, scalar and strict measurement invariance). Moreover, internal consistency values were excellent for all samples (α > 0.93) and evidence for construct validity in relation to external variables was found. Means comparisons revealed significant differences between all tested groups. Community adolescents reported higher social safeness in comparison to the adolescents placed in residential care. Within both samples, boys scored higher in the SSPS-A when compared to girls. Conclusions These findings provide evidence on the SSPS-A validity and its use across diverse adolescent samples.
Okonkwo is a man of fame, wildly acclaimed in Umuofia as a man of valour. He at the same time has a notoriety for violence. With a nagging fear of failure, he overreaches himself most often to counter the notion of his not being a woman. This inner desire for manliness plunges him into avoidable acts of shame and wrong decisions. Okonkwo lives in two worlds of fame and shame. He is caught in the crossroad of valour and overzealousness. On the contrary, Okonkwo is reputed for violence. His anger and shot temperedness portray his ugly side which is very well known among Umuofia. His superfluous show of power forces him into exile after he accidentally shoots Ezeudu’s son during Ezeudu’s funeral rites and consequently he embarks on a forced exile. His killing of the white man’s messenger saw his final disgrace and eventual death. Using the concepts of fame and shame, this paper examines the two worlds of the protagonist, the world of gallantry and fame and the world of shame and eventual suicide. The essay specifically observes the distinct features of the two worlds Okonkwo lived in. However, his inability to embrace the change as brought by the white missionary, and his inability to reconcile the old and trending dispensation become his undoing. Okonkwo is therefore propelled by his character which makes him to exist in the two worlds.
This chapter brings together different theories and models about how children develop and regulate feelings of chronic shame. The emergence of chronic shame is examined in the context of children’s attachment relationships and experiences of childhood maltreatment. The long-term difficulties that children might face with chronic shame are discussed, and the maladaptive strategies they are likely to use to regulate their overwhelming shame feelings are explored. We focus on how violence towards the self and/or other people can be used as a shame regulation strategy, and a clinical example is provided to further elucidate the link between chronic shame and violent or other challenging behaviour in children. Finally, a reflective account is included with observations from clinical practice and ideas on how to raise awareness about the nature and consequences of chronic shame and the need to break the intergenerational cycles of shame and violence.KeywordsAttachmentChronic shameChildhoodDevelopmentShame regulationViolent behaviour
The research on shame and pride among social workers is in its infancy. Given the potential consequences of these emotions on social workers and social work practice, this study had two main aims: (i) to identify practice situations in which social workers in Israel felt shame and pride and (ii) to classify and map these situations into conceptual domains. A concept mapping approach was used to achieve these aims. Eighty social workers recruited via social networks and snowballing participated in the statement generation of experiences of shame and pride in their daily practice. The sample was diverse in terms of seniority, role (managerial/frontline), populations served and agencies. The process yielded ten clusters, six of them representing sources of shame and four sources of pride. Based on the statements comprising the clusters, it can be argued that the ability of social workers to advance change can serve as an organising concept for comparing shame and pride. Not being able to promote desired change induces shame, while promoting such change fosters pride. These outcomes can be explained by self-discrepancy theory. The article discusses the implications of the study's results for theory, practice and research.
The role of bodily shame as a mediator between sexual or physical abuse and depression was investigated in a community sample of 101 women who had been followed for 8 years. In general, childhood and adult abuse were related to the occurrence of depression in the study period but when both were considered together, only adult abuse showed an independent association. However, childhood and adult abuse were both independently related to chronic or recurrent depression. Bodily shame was related to childhood abuse, and this association could not be accounted for by bodily dissatisfaction or low self-esteem. Bodily shame, but not childhood abuse, was related to chronic or recurrent depression when both factors were considered together and current depressive symptoms were controlled.