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.