WEIRD People Feel More Guilt

WEIRD People Feel More Guilt

A definition from a Google search for guilt is, “a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation.” This definition is similar to, but slightly different from a Google search for the definition of shame, “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior,” or “a loss of respect or esteem; dishonor.”
 
 
These two emotional responses are similar, but manifest differently in WEIRD and non-WEIRD people. This is an idea that Joseph Henrich explores in his book The WEIRDest People in the World. Regarding guilt, Henrich writes, “the feeling of guilt emerges when one measures their own actions and feelings against a purely personal standard.” Guilt is very internal, and therefore very much an emotion that dominates individualistic cultures. To describe a guilty experience or situation, Henrich gives the example of a vegetarian, “as individuals cultivate their own unique attributes and talents, guilt is part of the affective machinery that motivates them to stick to their personal standards. Vegetarians, for example, might feel guilty for eating bacon even when they are traveling in distant cities surrounded by nonvegetarians.” People external from us likely don’t perceive our guilt and don’t judge us for the actions for which we are feeling guilty, much of the time at least. It’s likely that very few people care whether I blog each morning or go for a run each day. But I feel committed to these things, so when I don’t go for a run I feel guilty. I have felt guilty for not blogging consistently this year. These are internal standards and measures which really don’t mean much to anyone beyond myself. I’ve. created my own personal standards that I feel compelled to live up to, and if I don’t live up to those standards, I feel guilty.
 
 
Shame, on the other hand, still exists within individualistic societies, but is not as dominant of an emotion as guilt. “Shame is rooted in a genetically evolved psychological package that is associated with social devaluation in the eyes of others,” writes Henrich (emphasis his). Shame is more connected to social perceptions and values where guilt is more tied to internal values and opinions. There are likely secrets that we all have which we feel guilty about, and if those secrets get out we might be shamed for them. But unlike my blogging or non-running examples for which I feel guilty, shame involves people looking down on us, our families, or the groups to which we belong. Guilt is experienced by the individual, shame is perpetuated by the individual’s society. “If there is no public knowledge, there is no shame,” writes Henrich.
 
 
These two emotions are interesting to think about when we consider our own lives and the lives of other people across the globe. How we relate to each other, the pressures we feel, and the shame or guilt that we feel can differ to a great degree based on whether we live in an individualistic WEIRD society or in a different society. Guilt can be something that overwhelms us and causes incredible amounts of stress over relatively minor things in WEIRD societies. Shame can be a powerful tool used to punish those who don’t live up to social norms in cultures, even when those social norms are trivial or even harmful to overall societal well being. When we think about people who are different from us and who seem to have different cultural values and practices, we should try to understand the pressures people feel from a guilt versus shame standpoint. This will help us better understand ourselves and others, and better understand how we can work with and cooperate with more people on a global scale.

Cheerful Sacrifices

Peter Singer in The Most Good You Can Do recounts a quote from an effective altruist who visited Singer’s classroom to speak to his students, “We don’t need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable.  We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.” The speaker was an effective altruist named Julia who faced the challenge of making donations to help others but maintaining a lifestyle that was comfortable enough for her to be a happily functioning human being. Interestingly, Julia’s quote pulls from a quote from the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, who said that Quakers should be an example and “walk cheerfully over the world.” What Julia’s quote shows is the importance about doing positive work because it feels good, and because it helps us add value to our lives. If we start doing positive work only because we do not want to feel guilty, we miss the point of giving whether it be our time, money, or resources.

Julia’s argument toward making donations is that in order to fulfill yourself and have the energy and passion required to continue to thrive, earn money, donate money, and inspire others, you need to be able to live with a budget that allows for spending on yourself and things that can help provide happiness, while at the same time donating as much as possible. An effective altruist would contribute a large amount of money toward meaningful causes, but they would see that they would be the most effective if they were able to convince others who are financially successful to do the same. Living a life where others perceive you as living out of a cardboard box does not inspire other’s to adopt a lifestyle of giving and sacrificing.

I have recently started listening to the podcast The Minimalist, and in the show the hosts address the same idea. Having things and purchasing items for oneself is not a bad thing, the hosts contend, if the items being purchased bring you joy and can serve a purpose.  When you are purchasing items for yourself and your own enjoyment without those items bringing you any joy or serving any purpose, then you are just obtaining more things. The podcast hosts would argue that eliminating some of what you had bought or that reducing your spending would actually help you have more time, since you would not be managing “things”, and give you more flexibility to do what you would like to do to help others and impact the world. Combining the thoughts of the minimalists with Julia and her quote above shows that we can support ourselves and enjoy our resources, but that we can find greater fulfillment by making donations and living a life focused on helping others rather than living a life focused on acquiring goods.