Shame and Guilt

The Motivation for Self-Change

A third area of my research over the past several years focuses on the nature of self-conscious emotion as a motivator of behavior. Initially, our work in this area was aimed at extending theoretical models distinguishing shame from guilt to instances where people experience these emotions in response to the behavior of their ingroup. In collaboration with Brian Lickel, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, we developed and tested a theoretical model of vicarious shame and guilt to explain the role of these emotions in predicting people’s reactions to the wrongdoings of others (Lickel, Steele, & Schmader, 2011). According to this approach, people feel a sense of vicarious shame when (someone in) their group tarnishes their identity, and feel a sense of vicarious guilt when they feel partly responsible for someone else’s wrongdoing. These distinct emotional reactions have consequences for behavior. For example, in one study, US and British participants were more supportive of withdrawing troops from Iraq to the degree that they felt shame, but not guilt, for their country’s occupation in the Middle East (Iyer et al., 2007). In other pair of studies, parents who report feeling vicarious shame felt for their children’s misdeeds support harsher forms of punishment, whereas feelings of vicarious guilt predict more adaptive methods of parenting (Scarnier, Schmader, & Lickel, 2009).

Our research on self-conscious emotion has often replicated past evidence that shame rather than guilt can be a maladaptive emotional reaction because it predicts a desire to avoid or deny those situations where one feels ashamed. However, as we began documenting the experience of vicarious shame, we soon discovered that shame can also motivate more approach motivations to counteract or repair people’s negative views of oneself or one’s group. This discovery led us to embark on more recent research on the adaptive significance of shame as an emotional signal to motivate self-change. In one paper, we have shown that shame, more than guilt, embarrassment, and regret, motivates a desire to change oneself (Lickel, Kushlev, & Schmader, 2014). Our more research work suggests that the intensity of one’s shameful feelings a predicts greater interest in embarking on long term and effortful programs of self-improvement. Together our research in this area has important implications for our understanding of emotional experiences, and helps to integrate research on emotions with research on social identity and self regulation.

In the coming years, we plan to broaden our research in this area using both laboratory and longitudinal studies to identify more clearly the role of shame in motivating actual efforts at change. For example, although shame might be an important emotional signal to initiate action toward self-change, other emotions like pride might be important for following through with a self-change program to its completion. Once we have established these basic processes, we hope to apply this research to specific issues of health behavior change.

For further reading:

Lickel, B., Kushlev, K. , Savalei, V., Matta, S. & Schmader, T. (2014). Shame and the motivation to change the self. Emotion, 14, 1049-1061.

Schmader, T., Croft, A., Scarnier, M, Lickel, B., & Mendes, W.B. (2012). Implicit and explicit emotion reactions to witnessing prejudice. Group Processes and Intergroup Behavior, 15, 379-392.

Scarnier, M., Schmader, T., & Lickel, B. (2009). Parental shame and guilt: Emotional reactions to a child’s wrongdoing. Personal Relationships, 16, 205-220.

Iyer, A., Schmader, T., & Lickel, B. (2007). Why individuals protest the perceived transgressions of their country: The role of anger, shame, and guilt. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 572-587.

Schmader, T., & Lickel, B. (2006). The approach and avoidance function of personal and vicarious shame and guilt. Motivation and Emotion. 30, 43-56.

Lickel, B., Schmader, T., Curtis, M., Scarnier, M., & Ames, D.R. (2005). Vicarious shame and guilt. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 8, 145-157.