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Description: What is the difference between shame and guilt (and what do they have to do with Covid-19)? Well, we could dive deeply into philosophy to try and sort that out but let’s start with how shame and guilt are viewed within Psychology. With roots in Psychodynamic (Freudian) theory, shame is the earlier arising feeling developmentally speaking. Very young children experience shame when they realize they have done something that has been noticed by parents and which has deeply disappointed them (e.g., “shame on you for doing that which is not what we do, not how we behave, you have lets us down). Shame requires public observation and social disappointment and, at least an implied threat to the continuity of the shamee’s relationship with the shamer(s) (e.g., “You are not one of us!”) The moral sanction is external, social. Guilt, on the other hand is later arriving, developmentally speaking. Once the local (family) social standards have been understood and internalized guilt can arise when an individual feels they have fallen short of the standards they believe they share. The shortfall can involve letting others down, or not trying hard or not behaving appropriately and the transgression in experienced as guilt, as feeling bad. So, what does this have to do with Covid? Well, a few minutes searching on Your Tube will yield a great many videos showing individuals being shamed for not wearing or for refusing to wear masks while shopping or otherwise testing recent social distancing norms. Given the above brief discussion of the difference between shame and guilt how effective do you think shaming is in shaping social behavior like mask wearing or in people’s decisions about whether to visit with friends and family over the coming holiday period? Once you have a few thoughts lined up have read through the linked article and see what it suggests.

Source: Pandemic Fatigue, Meet Pandemic Anger, Spencer Bokat-Lindell, Opinion, The New York Times.

Date: December 8, 2020

Photo Credit: Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Article Link:

So, are things clearer now or muddier? It is important, when reflecting on shame and guilt to remember that while we might think of them as individual feelings or emotions, they are actually deeply social. Shame and guilt have to do with our ongoing connections to those around us and not just to people we are related to or know well. We might, for example, yell “you should be ashamed” at a stranger who drives too fast through a playground zone and come close to a child (even one that is not ours). Think about the phrase “We are all in this together” which has been used a LOT by many, many people, health officials, politicians, and others as part of lager statements about the need to people to take responsibility for social distancing and mask wearing, for the sake of the rest of us if not for themselves. Add to this that shaming actions and statements on social media can have nuclear firepower and it is even more important that we figure out how to engage with rather than just socially sanction those we see as behaving in problematic ways. The simple concept that masks are worn for others rather than for oneself reflects this basic level of social connection that ani-maskers seem to ignoring. So, shame on them for that but really, is shaming them the best way to get them to join us or to realize that they ARE already one of us? Challenging (and interesting) times indeed.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How are shame and guilt different developmentally?
  2. How are shame and guilt playing out in relation to issues of commitment to or enforcement of social distancing rules or guidelines in relation to the Covid pandemic?
  3. What might be some effective strategies for increasing compliance with social distancing and mask wearing and, eventually, accepting vaccination?

References (Read Further):

Dearing, R. L., Stuewig, J., & Tangney, J. P. (2005). On the importance of distinguishing shame from guilt: Relations to problematic alcohol and drug use. Addictive behaviors, 30(7), 1392-1404. Link

Markus, Julia (2020) Quarantine Fatigue id Real, The Atlantic, May 11. Link

Srinivasan, A. (2018). The aptness of anger. Journal of Political Philosophy, 26(2), 123-144. Link

Parker, S., & Thomas, R. (2009). Psychological differences in shame vs. guilt: Implications for mental health counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 31(3), 213-224. Link

Tangney, J. P., Wagner, P. E., Hill-Barlow, D., Marschall, D. E., & Gramzow, R. (1996). Relation of shame and guilt to constructive versus destructive responses to anger across the lifespan. Journal of personality and social psychology, 70(4), 797. Link

Muris, P., & Meesters, C. (2014). Small or big in the eyes of the other: On the developmental psychopathology of self-conscious emotions as shame, guilt, and pride. Clinical child and family psychology review, 17(1), 19-40. Link

Mills, R. S. (2005). Taking stock of the developmental literature on shame. Developmental review, 25(1), 26-63. Link

Stuewig, J., & Tangney, J. P. (2007). Shame and guilt in antisocial and risky behaviors. The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research, 371-388. Link