Distinguishing Guilt and Shame (Part 1)

Distinguishing Guilt and Shame (Part 1) May 25, 2021

People always ask, “What’s the difference between guilt and shame?” And although previous articles mention some distinctions between guilt and shame, it seems that I’ve never dedicated an entire post to this topic. So, here goes.

Whereas this first post surveys a few common ways of differentiating shame and guilt, the next post will explain several ways that shame is a more significant problem and solution than many think.

Yes, But Not Always

Mark Twain famously quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Likewise, it would be easy to exaggerate the differences between shame and guilt.[1] Several common ways of differentiating the two concepts are true in general. Certain features tend to characterize each, but they are not constitutive or essential.

Scholars often use three criteria to distinguish between guilt and shame.

1. Some people claim that guilt is a private experience whereas shame is public. Yes, but not always.

2. Others suggest offenses of commission elicit shame, but offenses of omission produce guilty. Sometimes, but this is easily disproven.

3. Some writers suggest that guilt stems from moral failings while shame comes from either moral or nonmoral faults. Again, this has not always the case.

I mention these first to introduce common markers that mark shame from guilt; however, I do so primarily to underscore the point that most criteria distinguishing the two are not absolute and exhaustive. Not surprisingly, the same circumstances can provoke shame and guilt; so, in fact, they are not always separated in time even if they are experienced differently.

Basic Differences Between Guilt and Shame

I should add an important caveat before moving forward. As I explain in “Have Theologians No Sense of Shame?”, shame is not a single idea. Scholars routinely talk past one another. For example, social shame is not equivalent to psychological shame. Being shamed and shame-proneness are not identical. Furthermore, “moral shame” is not the same as the other shame types.

As a working definition of shame that accounts for a spectrum of meanings, I propose the following:

Shame is the fear, pain, or state of being devalued according to some standard of worth (whether social or moral).

Next, I offer a range of ways that researchers have delineated shame from guilt. I’ll begin with a few basic ideas that some of you will be familiar with. I progressively move towards more innovative or interesting suggestions.

In addition to the criteria mentioned above, writers most frequently assert that shame concerns the self, whereas guilt involves one’s actions. This is the “I am bad” versus “I behaved bad” distinction. Digging a little deeper, guilt concerns prohibitions and the transgression of a standard. Shame, however, involves an ideal, particularly the falling short of that ideal or standard.[2]

Finally, Miceli and Castelfranchi add to the list distinguishing criteria. Guilt requires one to feel a sense of responsibility. A person recognizes his power to bring about harm. By contrast, shame “implies a self-evaluation of inadequacy.”

Identity and Motivation

Shame is linked to one’s sense of identity, especially within a social context. We can draw from the Chinese distinction between the “little-me” and the “big-me.”[3] The former refers to ourselves as “individuals” distinct from others, i.e., primarily emphasizing how I am different. The “big me” signifies my identity within the context of a group (i.e., how I am we). The big-me is the interactive self, the self in relation to others. In their study, two Chinese scholars conclude,

When individuals think of others from a big-me perspective, they tend to feel guilty if they meet a bad outcome; when persons focus only on themselves from a little-me perspective, they are likely to feel ashamed if the outcome is not what they think it should be. (Zou & Wang, 603)

What’s the logic that explains this? The authors suggest

“when the little-me is activated, individuals focus only on themselves, which is more likely to cause an overly harsh self-evaluation; so that individuals are likely to feel ashamed when they meet a failure.

In contrast, when the big-me is activated, individuals do not focus on themselves, but on their families or the groups they belong to and how their behaviors impact these groups, so that these individuals are more likely to feel guilty when they think their behaviors harm their groups. (Zou & Wang, 602)

In a separate paper, Gausel and Brown observe different ways that guilt and shame affect people’s motivations. They conclude,

“felt guilt was associated with personal change motivations, while felt shame was associated with ingroup change motivations.”

By this, they mean that people experiencing shame are more likely to seek change within their ingroup, not merely within themselves individually.

In the next post, I point out some advantages and disadvantages of shame compared to guilt.


[1] Wong Ying and Tsai Jeanne. “Cultural models of shame and guilt” Pages 209-223 in Tracy, Robins, and Tangney, eds. The Self-Conscious Emotions: Theory and Research. New York: Guilford Press, 2007.

[2] Fabrice and Teroni, “Differentiating Shame from Guilt.” Consciousness and Cognition. 2008.

[3] ZhiMin Zou and DengFeng Wang. “Guilt Versus Shame: Distinguishing the Two Emotions from a Chinese Perspective.” Social Behavior and Personality 37, no. 5, (2009): 601-604.

Photo Credit: Flickr/quinanya

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