Shame and Guilt
Summary and Keywords
Shame and guilt are distinct emotional experiences that are often confused by lay people as similar. Yet, shame and guilt are aroused by distinct cognitive appraisals and lead to distinct emotional, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes. There are distinctions between shame and guilt in psychology and communication. Differences are correlated with personality and individual proneness for shame and/or guilt.
Humans are emotional creatures. We use emotional terms to express our opinions and to communicate with others (de Hooge, Breugelmans, & Zeelenberg, 2008). We can regret avoiding our mother(s), feel angry about unfair political policies, feel hopeful of what the future may bring our children, or act ashamed of the things we have said to our spouses. We also use emotion-based communication, oftentimes, to persuade others to change their behavior. Marketers develop emotional advertisements meant to change our brand loyalties. Parents may try to guilt their children into attending piano lessons or scare audiences into getting regular cervical cancer exams. Emotion is part of our daily lives.
For centuries, (Aristotle, trans. 1975) emotions have also claimed an important place in the work of social scientists. Emotions affect how we think, what we think, what we pay attention to, and ultimately affects our behavior (see Nabi, 1999). Interestingly enough, the average person is unaware of the impacts emotions may be having on their cognitions and behaviors—some even denying the possibility that this could ever be the case (Lerner & Keltner, 2001).
In this article, the focus is on two particular emotions: shame and guilt. The emotional experience of both shame and guilt serves as a signal that some need is not being met. That is, shame and guilt are both motivated by the idea that there is something wrong in our environment. The wrongdoing was created by us—we have not, in some way, followed our “moral compass”; there is a discrepancy in our behavior or traits and our ideal behaviors or traits. Shame and guilt are both unpleasant experiences that we seek to un-do in some way. In fact, the immediate reaction is to remove the guilt or shame—yet, the ensuing related emotions, perceptions, judgments, and action tendencies can be quite different. This article will take a deeper look into these differences, and at times the similarities, in the ways that guilt and shame affect our cognitions, our emotions, and our behaviors.
There was a time when only the valence of emotions was considered to be important. In the Handbook of Affective Sciences, Forgas concluded that “. . . most of the research suggests a fundamental affect-congruent pattern: positive affect improves, and negative affect impairs, the value of self-conceptions” (Forgas, 2003, p. 602). Throughout the 1980s, general consensus in the scholarly literature was that positively valenced emotions, such as happiness, resulted in like outcomes and negatively valenced emotions (e.g., fear, guilt, shame) caused like outcomes. Scholars believed that the most important dimension of emotion was its valence: a hypothesis that is still strongly held in some scholarly camps (see Bolls, Lang, & Potter, 2001). One famous study led by Johnson and Tversky (1983), in fact, found that after participants read a newspaper article inducing positive or negative affect (and then completed a battery of risk perception questions), the participants experiencing negativity perceived more risk across the board (e.g., financial risks, natural hazard risks, health risks) relative to the group experiencing positivity.
Studies like this would deem articles such as this one unnecessary. In fact, both shame and guilt are negative experiences (unenjoyable). The implication then is that the difference between guilt and shame is minimal—both emotions should lead to similar outcomes. Here, it will be made clear that this is not the case.
Certainly, emotional valence has been an influential dimension for forecasting emotion effects, yet it is but one emotion dimension. At least a decade after Johnson and Tversky’s study, Nabi (1999) as well as Lerner and Keltner (2001) proposed that emotional valence was not the primary driver of critical communication outcomes such as information seeking, motivated attention, risk perception, or attitude change. Rather, they proposed models (and accompanying data) that made the case that emotions are unique and discrete (DeSteno, Petty, Wegener, & Rucker, 2000). Two emotions of the same valence (e.g., anger and fear) can create different outcomes (Lerner, Gonzalez, Small, & Fischhoff, 2002).
The understanding of shame and guilt as unique emotions, with psychologically important outcomes, could begin with Freud (1923/1916). Freud saw guilt as a conflict between the ego, which was morally superior; and the id, which is hedonistic. Although Freud did not discuss shame at length, he did propose that shame caused repression; and thus, shame was accountable for the unconsciousness of the mind (i.e., forgetting). Freud also developed the structural theory, which had guilt and the Oedipus complex at its core. Some have argued that Freud said little about shame due to his own shame and narcissism. Though it is impossible to know the truth about Freud’s disinterest, one thing was clear: Freud did not develop a very clear or consistent definition of either emotion.
Differentiating Shame and Guilt
Lay individuals have the unfortunate tendency of using the terms shame and guilt as synonyms. The emotion labels are often confused to be the same or similar—partially due to the lack of precision in the English language with regard to these emotions (Tangney, Miller, Flicker, & Barlow, 1996). Certainly, both are unpleasant experiences. And, both emotions are caused by one’s own evaluation of one’s own behavior. It is true that shame and guilt are both “intense, negative, self-conscious emotions” (Gao, Wang, & Qian, 2010, p. 1401). Likewise, both are generally considered to be “moral” emotions (Tangney, 1995) in that they arise when there is an awareness that one’s behaviors (or thoughts) have fallen below one’s moral code. Yet, there are crucial distinctions between the two emotions accounting for differences in their cognitive and behavioral outcomes.
In differentiating guilt and shame it is useful to discuss two common conceptualizations used to differentiate guilt and shame: (1) the “self versus behavior” dimension and (2) the “public versus private” dimension (Table 1; Antonetti & Baines, 2015). Shame arises when there is a negative evaluation of the self (not simply one’s behavior). That is to say, the individual’s negative evaluation is of what they believe to be a stable personality trait (i.e., I am a bad person, I am selfish, etc.). By contrast, guilt arises from a negative self-evaluation of one’s behavior (i.e., I did a bad thing). As Tangney put it (1996) “Shame—in its focus on the entire self—can be viewed as an affective state stemming from internal, global, uncontrollable, and presumably stable attributions; guilt—in its focus on behavior—can be conceptualized as involving internal, specific, controllable, and most likely less stable attributions” (p. 102). Although both emotions are unpleasant—guilt can best be described as uncomfortable while shame can be downright painful.
Table 1. Distinctions in Shame and Guilt. Adapted from Antonetti and Baines (2015).
Guilt: Unpleasant emotion caused by appraisal of negative behavior caused by one’s own behavior.
Shame: Unpleasant emotion caused by appraisal of negative outcomes caused by stable personality trait(s).
Guilt: Unpleasant emotion caused by private appraisal of negative personal behavior.
Shame: Unpleasant emotion caused by public appraisal of negative outcomes caused by personal behavior.
Certainly, guilt is an unpleasant emotional reaction to an actual or anticipated violation of one’s internalized values or beliefs. When we engage in behaviors that “let ourselves down,” guilt is the accompanying emotion, distinguished by a feeling of personal accountability (Lazarus, 1991). Guilt is unique from shame in that it tends to be “other oriented.” Guilt can be induced through the recognition that one’s actions have the capability of causing others harm (de Hooge et al., 2008). In this sense, guilt is a critical emotion in the self-regulation process. Guilt alerts people of their failures and provides the impetus to engage in self-regulation and control their behavior (Antonetti & Baines, 2015; Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994). Shame tends to be an inward, self-focused, emotion. Importantly, intentionality is not a necessary condition for the experience of guilt; one may or may not have engaged in the behavior purposefully (Tracy & Robins, 2007). Yet, for one to experience shame there typically is a perception of intentionality.
The second conceptualization, private versus public behavior, regards the question of who, what audiences, are aware of the emotion-causing behavior. Notably, this is a perceptual issue. For example, it may be that no other person is aware of one’s sexual activity; but, the perception that “everyone knows” is more likely to lead to shame over guilt. So, shame is the more likely emotional experience when there is a (real or perceived) negative public appraisal of one’s behavior. And, that certainly means that shame is more likely when one’s wrongdoing is actually publicly exposed (Cohen, Wolf, Panter, & Insko, 2011). Antonetti and Baines (2015) emphasized that the public/private dimension does not concern the nature of the wrongdoing but does emphasize the nature of the appraisal process. Guilt, then, is more likely to have been a private appraisal process whereby an individual may remember, imagine, or has just experienced doing something wrong (or failing to do what is right). Hoffman (1982) argued that emotional experiences like these serve adaptive functions in the development of moral, social, functional behaviors—and the inhibition of aggressive and antisocial behaviors. In reality, intense and lasting experiences of shame can be harmful to the ego and self-identity (Lewis, 1971).
It was posited earlier that the emotional experience is not tied up with the actual behavior event, but rather, in one’s appraisal or interpretation of the event. This is consistent with the propositions of Appraisal Tendency Framework (see Cavanaugh, Bettman, Luce, & Payne, 2007), which argues that discrete emotions are caused by individuals’ appraisal of their environment. These appraisals, which are linked with specific emotions, affect future judgments and choices by providing a perceptual lens from which we see the world (Lerner, Han, & Keltner, 2007). There is an underlying implication here that is critical to point out. That is, if specific emotions are caused by our interpretations of events, then it makes sense that there is great variability in our emotional experiences. Thus, an examination of individual differences in the experience of shame and guilt is warranted.
Individual Differences in the Experience of Shame and Guilt
All people are capable of experiencing shame and guilt; but some people are more likely to respond to behaviors with shameful or guilty feelings than are others (Lewis, 1971). “Shame-proneness” and “guilt-proneness” regard individual personality differences in the propensity to experience guilt or shame across various individual transgressions. This individual personality variable is measured with the Guilt and Shame Proneness Scale (GASP, Cohen et al., 2011). Individuals with high levels of shame-proneness attribute transgressions and negative outcomes to faults within their character. Some researchers have suggested that they are likely to be more susceptible to the adverse effects of failure (Thompson, Altmann, & Davidson, 2004). High guilt-prone persons are more likely to recognize their behavior, when it is inconsistent with their own values, and even when the behavior was private.
Cohen and her colleagues (2011) have distributed the GASP nationally to reveal critical differences in personality and guilt- or shame-proneness. With regard to guilt-proneness, their studies have shown that people with high levels of this trait also have high levels of the “H Factor”—a broad temperament encompassing other traits such as sincerity, fairness, and modesty. To a lesser degree (with correlations around .30–.40), guilt-proneness is also related to agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Similarly, people who are guilt-prone are also more likely to be empathetic, perspective takers, considerate of future consequences, and stronger in moral identity. One experiment showed that those high in guilt-proneness were less likely to lie than those with lower guilt-proneness on a business negotiation task. It is fair to say that guilt-proneness is analogous to one’s moral compass—leading people to think of others and work cooperatively. Interestingly, women are more likely to be guilt-prone than are men (approximately 1 standard deviation higher) and older adults have higher scores on guilt-proneness than do younger adults. Much less is known about the personality correlates of shame-proneness. What little is known shows that shame-proneness is correlated with self-esteem and self-compassion—in a negative direction. And, people with high scores on shame-proneness were more likely to make negative self-evaluations. Tangney, Miller, Flicker, and Barlow (1996) wrote that as shame-proneness increased, so did maladaptive responses to anger (e.g., malevolent intentions); and, this was the case for participants of all ages from fourth grade through adulthood.
An increasing number of studies have traced shame- and guilt-proneness back to childhood. When examining the role of guilt and shame in three- to five-year-olds, one study showed that the older children expressed more guilt than did the younger children. Children are also able to differentiate moral from non-moral situations. Only when the situation was moral was shame associated with difficult temperament and with emotional problems, whereas guilt was correlated with adaptive characteristics (Bafunno & Camodeca, 2013).
Given that older children were more able to express guilt, it should not be surprising that adolescents also reveal similar outcomes. Adolescence is marked by changes in emotion regulation. One study examined the relationships among individual differences in the habitual use of a wide range of emotion regulation strategies and proneness to shame and guilt in adolescents (Szentágotai-Tătar & Miu, 2017). The researchers’ data showed that guilt and empathic perspective taking were correlated with prosocial, relationship-enhancing effects. They also found that shame was linked to personal distress, whereas guilt was linked to perspective taking. Moreover, guilt-prone people were better at perspective taking whereas shame had no relationship to perspective taking. Using path analytic statistical procedures, it was revealed that the guilt-proneness trait leads to perspective taking, which leads to actual guilt feelings, which produces beneficial relationship outcomes. Guilty feelings may mediate the relationship-enhancing effects of empathy (Leith & Baumeister, 1998).
Affective, Cognitive, and Behavioral Responses to Guilt and Shame
Clearly, personality plays a role in one’s shame or guilt likelihood. But, as suggested earlier, even those with moderate to low likelihood of shame- or guilt-proneness can experience these unpleasant emotions. And, even outside of personality, these emotional experiences will have causal impact on our (other) emotional experiences and cognitive outcomes. Although to some extent feelings of shame and guilt may coexist (Tangney & Dearing, 2002), we will continue to consider the emotions separately.
Shame, Guilt, and Anger. Shame is an inherently negative experience whereby individuals’ egos are bruised and they perceive a personal deficiency. Consequently, it is not surprising that feelings of shame can lead to feelings of anger and rage (Tangney, Wagner, Fletcher, & Gramzow, 1992). Shame can lead to myriad “compulsive, addictive, irresponsible, and demoralizing attitudes and behaviors” (Decker, 2016, p. 1) and is a primary cause of various types of emotional and physical distress. In interpersonal communication scenarios, people can evoke shame in others by calling to question their behavior or bringing up past situations where one’s behavior did not follow one’s moral compass. One indication that shame has been evoked in an individual is explosive anger leading to self-destructive attitudes or abusive actions toward oneself. This finding occurs across cultures (e.g., Japanese, Nepalese, European), but, may be particularly strong in “honor cultures” (Boiger, Mesquita, Uchida, & Barrett, 2013). For example, studies show that Japanese experience more anger with outgroup members (relative to ingroup) (Scherer, Matsumoto, Wallbott, & Kudoh, 1988) and harmony is most important with the ingroup (cf. Triandis, Bontempo, Villareal, Asai, & Lucca, 1988). Yet, Americans report more anger in intimate relationships relative to Japanese persons (Scherer et al., 1988). One theory is that Americans place strong value on self-assertion and autonomy in close relationships. The Japanese, by comparison, emphasize embeddedness and relational harmony in close relationships (Rothbaum, Pott, Azuma, Miyake, & Weisz, 2000). In a multinational study by Scherer and colleagues (1988), U.S. participants were more likely to experience anger, relative to Japanese, when they perceived an injustice—referring to circumstances in which they perceive a failure in getting the compensation they felt they deserved. By contrast, Japanese individuals stressed the violation of social norms over personal rights.
Self-Efficacy. Another cognitive outcome varying among those experiencing shame versus guilt is self-efficacy. Self-efficacy relates to individuals’ perception of control over their actions and outcomes (Bandura, 1997). In the health behavior literature, self-efficacy may be revered as the cornerstone of positive behavior. Efficacy beliefs are defined as individuals’ beliefs in their ability to engage in the appropriate course of action (i.e., perceived self-efficacy; Bandura, 1997) and to recognize this course of action as effective (i.e., perceive response efficacy; Witte, 1992). Bandura (1982) argued that perceptions of self-efficacy influence thought patterns, actions, and emotional arousal. He also noted that “perceived self-efficacy helps to account for such diverse phenomena as changes in coping behavior produced by different modes of influence” (p. 122). Further, Bandura (1994) proposed that efficacy can reduce anxiety.
Given that shame also centers on the self and guilt centers on behaviors of the self—it might not surprise one that shame is negatively related to self-efficacy (Baldwin, Baldwin, & Ewald, 2006). Although shame and guilt are related, guilt was not correlated with self-efficacy. The implications of these data are significant—when feelings of shame (or as shame-proneness) increase, people are less likely to feel confident in their abilities to control their own behaviors. Given the vital impact of self-efficacy in the health and risk behavior literature, as well as in the risk communication literature, it is reasonable to assert that shame is antithetical to engaging in positive health behaviors. But, guilt did not increase nor decrease one’s self-efficacy—it was unrelated to the concept altogether.
It has already been asserted that self-efficacy is inextricably linked to perceptions of control. Lindsay-Hartz, de Rivera, and Mascolo (1994) conducted a series of qualitative studies unearthing the relationships between experiences of guilt and shame and control perceptions. Nineteen adults were asked to provide an in-depth and detailed description of guilt (or shame) “as opposed to an experience of humiliation, embarrassment, depression or other similar emotions” (p. 275). People describing experiences of guilt expressed their experience in words such as “I could . . .” or “I could have . . .” The authors proposed that people experiencing guilt were convinced that they had some form of control over the experience. These data imply that people recalling guilt experiences were able to imagine a scenario where they might have acted differently. This kind of language was not found among persons describing shame. In fact, when participants were describing shame-ridden experiences they described themselves as “embodying the anti-ideal” (p. 177) using language like “I am . . .” versus “I failed to be . . .”
Behavioral Motivations. Efficacy and control directly affect behaviors. And, behavioral motivations are distinctive for those experiencing shame versus guilt. Shame tends to be an unconscious and physiological response to rejection (Martens, 2005) that can lead to avoidance (i.e., escapist, hiding) behaviors. On the contrary, the extant evidence does not reveal that guilty feelings lead to maladaptive rage responses, nor does guilt lead to escapist behaviors. In fact, whereas the action tendency of guilty persons is to engage in behaviors that would ameliorate the guilty feelings (e.g., altruistic behaviors), the action tendency for shamed people is to hide altogether. So, this is another critical distinction between shame and guilt—shame tends to be an avoidance-oriented emotion and guilt tends to be an approach-oriented emotion (Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007).
In Lindsay-Hartz and colleagues’ (1994) qualitative research, they found that guilt is caused when there is a violation of moral order, that the person was responsible for the transgression, and that they “could have done better.” The interviews also revealed that the motivations of people experiencing guilt was to make things better, to reconcile the situation, to believe that there is some control over behavior(s), and to “be forgiven.” For example, one participant describing a guilt experience stated “I think it’s important that you care about people to at least give a real big effort to it . . .” In sum, people who experience guilt want to repair the situation and correct the wrong. Shame, by contrast, was caused when realizing, through the eyes of another human, that we are not being the person that we ought to be, and, that we could not have avoided that (lack of control over behavior). In other words, with shame there is an actual person (who we are) and a person we ought to be—and yet, we do not have control over the process of becoming that idealized person. Shame functions to make people feel worthless and to want to shrink away and disappear from the world. One research participant describing shame stated “. . . shame . . . just makes you feel worthless . . . like a liar . . . like a big fake . . . shame is like ‘give me a big hole to crawl into . . . .’”
Guilt, too, affects behavior. The strongest evidence of this comes from the body of literature linking guilty feelings with behavioral compliance. This literature was sparked by the notion that guilt causes a desire to be altruistic—as a means to relieve oneself from the negative emotional state. There is nearly a 50-year history of studying this relationship (see Boster et al.’s recent meta-analysis, 2016). For example, three separate experiments performed by Freedman, Wallington, and Bless (1967) tested whether people who feel guilty are more likely to engage in altruistic acts they would rather not do than people who do not feel guilty. After believing that they caused a carefully aligned set of index cards to drop on the floor and become disheveled, participants who felt badly were more likely to stop and pick up the cards—this was not the case for those participants who did not believe the card mishap was their fault.
The effects of guilt on compliance are robust across a variety of situational differences (O’Keefe, 2002). Guilt has been found effective when a person whom an actor has hindered makes a request of that actor (Freedman et al., 1967), as well as when requests have been made by a third party (Boster et al., 1999; Regan, 1971) and when no explicit request has been made at all (Konecni, 1972). In addition, guilt has been shown to motivate helping behavior whether transgressions are accidental or purposeful (Freedman et al., 1967). This effect has been replicated numerous times (e.g., Boster et al., 1999; Carlsmith & Gross, 1969; Figge & O’Keefe, 1998; Konecni, 1972). In fact, Boster et al. found that across 47 effect sizes analyzed, guilt does increase compliance with an average effect of p = .26.
Across this article, it is clear that although guilt is often classified as “negative,” it can lead to constructive outcomes. Given that guilt is directed at a behavior—and not a stable trait of the self—it may motivate individuals to restore violated personal standards to alleviate the guilty feelings (Izard, 1977).
Given that the motivations for guilty persons are to “set things right,” it is reasonable that guilt can be worked into persuasive strategies aimed at causing behavioral action, specifically, healthy or risk-reducing behaviors (Huhmann & Brotherton, 1997) such as reduced substance abuse (Dearing, Stuewig, & Tangney, 2005). Yet, inducing shame through emotional appeals might lead to anger, frustration, and a desire to “shrink away”—implicating a destructive communication tactic.
Guilt and Shame in Health Communication
The use of negative emotions as persuasive devices is not novel. There is vast research on fear appeals (see Witte & Allen, 2000), for example. Although people report being exposed to guilt and shame tactics regularly (Brennan & Binney, 2010), there are far fewer studies evaluating the outcomes of such strategies. For example in a recent meta-analysis focusing on the effectiveness of guilt on health-related attitudes and behavior change, only seven articles were included (Xu & Guo, 2017). And, at least one of those studies did not intentionally employ guilt appeals, but, did measure guilty feelings as a mediating variable (Hullett, 2006).
One of the more difficult issues, for scholars of emotional appeals, is the distinction between exposing people to an emotional appeal and the experience of the emotion itself. It is a different process altogether to develop communication materials that are meant to intentionally evoke these emotional experiences than it is to organically experience the emotion. The former implies that a campaign team employed visual and verbal strategies to evoke guilt, or shame. The distinction is the same one as the difference between constructing a joke—meant to evoke laughter—and the act of laughing itself.
To develop a guilt appeal, then, the message designer overtly communicates that the target audience (1) has a moral code and (2) their behavior (or future behavior) has fallen short of that code. These objectives can be achieved visually and/or verbally. A typical guilt appeal is made up of two parts: (1) imagery or text intended to induce guilt (or anticipated guilt) by drawing attention to an inconsistency between one’s standards and behaviors and (2) a recommended course of action that would evidently trigger the reduction of the transgression and/or negative affect (Basil et al., 2006; Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994). It is also worth pointing out that, consistent with appraisal tendency framework, guilt appeals contain message features that are consistent with guilt appraisal patterns as well as core themes of the guilt emotion (Lazarus & Lazarus, 1994): (1) the guilt-inducing behavior(s) are caused by the self (versus others or natural circumstances) and (2) are/were avoidable (i.e., under one’s control).
Appeals to shame, then, would communicate implicitly or explicitly that the target audience “ought to be different.” In Lazarus’s language they communicate that the behavior was caused by the self—and that the behaviors were unavoidable because “that’s just who you are.” That is, that the person has fallen short of her moral code (versus their behavior). As with guilt appeals, these attributions can be communicated visually or verbally by referring to “you” versus “your behavior.” For example, one shame-based weight loss campaign showed a girl with obesity looking disappointed in herself with the words “My fat might be funny to you . . .” (emphasis mine). These communication strategies communicate that the health problem lies within the person.
Appeals to shame and guilt can lead to emotional experiences beyond that of shame and guilt. The vast majority of research in this domain is on guilt appeals. Guilt appeals have been tested in a variety of domains including food and product marketing, health behaviors, environmental behaviors, and emergency preparedness (among some others). In fact, the overall domain might have an impact on the outcomes of the appeals. In order to make this discussion parsimonious, domains will be broken down into two overriding categories: Commercial Marketing and Social Marketing.
Commercial Marketing—Using Guilt or Shame to Make a Profit. Are working mothers more likely to buy a certain brand of bread or toothpaste because an advertisement made them experience “mommy guilt”? It turns out, yes, but, that may depend on the intensity of the guilt the advertisement attempted to induce. In the 1990s several marketing scholars began testing the role that guilt appeal intensity had on outcomes related to purchasing products. As commercial advertisements’ communication of guilt increased from subtle to moderate, outcomes, such as ad liking and purchase intentions increased. But, when the guilt became strongly intense, liking and intentions dropped off—indicating a U-shaped nonlinear effect. Yet, data also suggests that as the intensity of the guilt-based advertising increases, angry feelings will increase linearly. Theoretically, this effect could be explained by an effect similar to reactance (Coulter & Pinto, 1995; Pinto & Priest, 1991). When message guilt intensity is strong, participants’ anger is also strong and the effectiveness of the guilt appeal is inhibited (Coulter & Pinto, 1995). For a guilt advertisement to be effective, participants must experience guilt and not guilt mixed with other unintended emotions like anger, frustration, or even shame.
There are other possible explanations for the effects of guilt advertisements beyond reactance. Perhaps when guilt appeal intensity reaches a threshold, the guilt appeal can begin being viewed as manipulative. Perceived manipulative intent is when audiences perceive advertisers’ attempts to persuade as inappropriate, unfair or manipulative (Campbell, 1995). It can be argued that message receivers become overtly aware that guilt is being employed; and, when individuals perceive a message (i.e., advertisement) to be inappropriate, unfair, or manipulative, the appeal may elicit anger along with guilt (Cotte, Coulter, & Moore, 2005; Coulter, Cotte, & Moore, 1999). The novelty in this explanation was in the awareness of the persuasive strategy: When the audience become aware of the strategy, it loses its appeal—especially when that tactic feels manipulative (Bessarabova, Turner, Fink, & Blustein, 2015).
Yet, this perception of manipulation should only occur if the product or brand being promoted in the advertisement had profit motivations. Within the domain of commercial marketing, there may be an intrinsic conflict of interest in the use of guilt because the message ultimately seeks to sell a product or service. In other words, as guilt increases, awareness of the guilt strategy increases; thus, the audience is aware that the advertisement is trying to use guilt to make money. It is very likely that target audiences perceive that it is inappropriate to use intense guilt to make a profit, but, not inappropriate if the motive is altruistic.
Turner and colleagues (in press) tested this hypothesis in a controlled experiment. Turner’s team developed messages aimed at changing attitudes and intentions toward using reusable grocery sacks at the market. They developed low, moderate, and high-intensity guilt appeals (in this case, 30 second radio spots) that either communicated “use” reusable grocery sacks or “purchase” a particular brand of grocery sacks. In either case, the message communicated that reusable grocery sacks have a positive impact on the environment and all other components of the guilt appeals were kept constant. Turner and colleagues measured persuasiveness of the appeal, ad liking, and brand attitudes. Emotional outcomes such as feelings of guilt and anger were also measured.
Turner’s study backed up this theory. When guilt appeals are for-profit, there is a relative failure of high-intensity guilt appeals compared to moderate-intensity guilt appeals. Ad liking and brand attitude were both low in the high-intensity condition. Moderate-intensity guilt appeals caused more positive brand attitudes and were liked more than high-intensity appeals. This finding occurred even though the message was for a good cause. So, it is possible that these effects might be more robust if the topic were purely commercial (e.g., selling fast food). This study has not been replicated to date. Future studies should systematically vary the kinds of commercial products being sold with a guilt appeal to assess if the product yields an effect on outcomes. Yet, when guilt appeals have low or no profit motivations, there is a positive relationship between guilt intensity of the ad and perceived persuasiveness.
Social Marketing—Using Guilt or Shame to Make the World Better. Social marketers and health communicators have also attempted the use of guilt appeals to motivate health, environmental, or preparedness behaviors. Yet, studies in this domain show little or no evidence of a curvilinear relationship between intensity of the guilt appeals and feelings of guilt and other outcomes, such as attitude change (Bennett, 1998). In the social marketing domain, messages become more effective at changing attitudes and intentions as feelings of guilt created by the ad increases (Lindsey, 2005; Turner & Underhill, 2012). Findings from the meta-analysis conducted on the topic of guilt on persuasion in the health promotion domain reveal that the overall relationship between guilt and persuasive outcomes is r=.049 (Xu & Guo, 2017). This effect may be even more pronounced if the message also induced empathy (Basil et al., 2006, 2008).
One of the more intriguing issues in the guilt appeals literature is that even in cases where guilt appeals are reported to be persuasive; they can still cause anger in the message recipients (Turner & Underhill, 2012). This might be explained by Turner’s earlier explanation regarding awareness of the guilt appeal. But, another explanation is that particular message features used in the creation of guilt appeals could cause undetected, unpredicted, emotions unbeknown to the authors (Niederdeppe, Bu, Porismita, Kindig, & Robert, 2008). Particularly, it could be that when scholars thought they were eliciting intense guilt, they were actually inducing shame. Niederdeppe and colleagues posited that unintended anger could stem from an emphasis on the target audiences’ personal traits through the use of the word you in the guilt appeal. “The statement . . . you let a child go hungry again’ produces more guilt and anger than the statement ‘last night, a child went to bed hungry again’” (Niederdeppe et al., 2008, p. 502).
Based on a deeper understanding of the dimensions underlying shame, Boudewyns, Turner, and Paquin (2013) predicted that the emphasis on personal traits versus behavior in a message may shift the focus onto the person evoking feelings of shame rather than feelings of guilt (see Lewis, 1971; Tangney, 1995). Therefore, perceptions of manipulative intent may result from unintended (by the message designer) feelings of shame. Recall, with shame, the person regrets who they are; but, with guilt, the person regrets what they have done (Tangney et al., 2007).
Given this distinction, guilt appeals can cause guilty feelings alone (“shame-free guilt”), but, they can also cause guilt that is infused with feelings of shame (“shame infused guilt”) (Tangney et al., 2007). Tangney et al wrote “The advantages of guilt are lost when a person’s guilt experience (‘Oh, look at what a horrible thing I have done’) is magnified and generalized to the self (‘. . .and aren’t I a horrible person’)” (Tangney et al., 2007, p. 353). Thus, shame infused guilt may have serious negative consequences due to the different psychological outcomes resulting from shame (Boudewyns et al., 2013). Whereas guilt produces the desire to confess, apologize, or repair, shame can result in anger and self-perceptions of not being able to cope which produce a desire to hide, escape, or strike back (Tangney & Dearing, 2002; Tangney et al., 2007).
In line with this reasoning, it is possible that the high guilt messages that lead to high levels of anger in previously published studies were actually eliciting a combination of guilt and shame, or even shame by itself. Boudewyns et al. (2013) conducted a controlled experiment to examine this hypothesis. The research team developed two persuasive appeals, print ads in favor of STI testing, which explicitly communicated either pure shame or pure guilt. The shame ad explicitly communicated that people who ignore STI testing have bad attributes (e.g., they are “disrespectful people”). The shame-free version of the message used the same overall language, same visuals, and same format but employed the word “behavior” in lieu of “people” (e.g., they have “disrespectful behavior”). The data from this experiment indicated that both messages caused feelings of guilt. But, the shame-prone message also caused feelings of shame, anger and perceived manipulative intent, whereas the shame-free message did not.
Qualitative studies line up with these quantitative findings. Brennan and Binney (2010) conducted a qualitative study comparing shame and guilt. The purpose of their study was to assess how negatively valenced social marketing messages affect behaviors where voluntary compliance is desirable (e.g., seatbelts, drinking, and driving etc.). The authors engaged in semistructured interviews with 120 participants. Participants were not exposed to ads, but, rather were asked to recall ads that evoked fear, guilt and/or shame. The participants, in recalling guilt-based advertising, noted that they are pervasive. Participants often felt guilty for not following social norms like body weight, and the chase of wealth. Participants also noted a clear distinction between fear appeals and guilt appeals; whereas the former threatens people the latter encourages “moral obligations toward others” (p. 12). One participant in the study stated “Guilt messages have better effects because it plays . . . with your conscious” (p. 13). Finally, participants noted that guilt works through the process of personalization—when you personalize the message, you are more likely to feel guilty, and guilt will motivate compliance.
When participants recalled messages that evoked shame, however, their responses were markedly different. Research participants linked shame with embarrassment, humiliation, and foolishness. Participants also noted that shame was a more intense emotion than guilt and that they were unlikely to experience shame unless close friends or family were aware of their behavior. Overall, shame appeals were regarded negatively and as an ineffectual method of persuasion; one participant noted “messages that shame people seem a big . . . big brotherish . . . I think there’s better ways to persuade people to do things . . .” (p. 18).
Comparing Guilt and Shame Appeals. It appears as though guilt appeals lead to positive impacts on attitudes and perceptions of persuasiveness relative to shame appeals. It is also the case that guilt and shame appeals have distinct effects on threat and efficacy perceptions. Becheur and Valette-Florence (2014) found that for fear, guilt, shame appeals, as emotional intensity increases so does perceptions of severity of the threat and susceptibility to the threat. And, in all three conditions, response efficacy (the belief that the behavioral recommendations will work) was positively related to persuasion. Yet, with regard to other outcomes, there were distinct differences between shame and guilt. For example, self-esteem was positively related to self-efficacy in the guilt condition, but, not in the shame condition. Also, in the guilt condition self-esteem increased the likelihood that people felt susceptible to the threat. In the shame condition, self-esteem decreased the likelihood that people felt susceptible to the threat.
Recognizing that shame triggers a reactance function in people that leads to withdrawal and avoidance, Yoon (2015) questioned whether humor could be an effective communication device to aid in reframing negativity and providing emotional uplift and self-efficacy. Yoon also proposed that one individual difference factor that would impact the relationship between the message (here, low or high shame appeals with or without humor) and cognitive outcomes was fear of negative evaluation (FNE). As such, Yoon predicted a three-way interaction between message shame level, inclusion of humor and FNE on attention to the ad, attitudes about the ad, attitudes about the behavior, and behavioral intentions. People high in FNE who were exposed to high shame+humor paid the most attention to the ad (relative to other experimental conditions). Those low in FNE paid more attention to high shame ads when they were low in humor. This pattern held out for attitudes about the behavior and behavioral intentions. With regard to attitudes toward the ad, level of humor did not make a difference for those high in FNE.
There are multiple implications of this study. There are public health behaviors that are, perhaps, organically paired with shameful feelings (i.e., the mere mentioning of the behavior can engage shameful reactions in individuals). This study indicates that in such cases, the use of humor as a messaging tool can reduce defensiveness, increase positive reactions, and lead a higher likelihood that the target audience can process the message and have positive attitudes and intentions with regard to the recommended behavior. It might be that when shame is high we have to use other strategies to push people away from emotion-focused coping and toward problem-focused coping. When such efforts are made, messages can be effective—even for those individuals feeling shame. In fact, goal orientation (problem-focused versus emotion-focused) is a critical feature in understanding shame and guilt.
Guided by regulatory fit (Higgins, 2005) theory, which suggests that when a message uses the same means of goal pursuit as audiences’ preferred orientation, it will be cognitively processed more easily and be more persuasive. Given its properties, guilt, should engage problem-focused coping. Problem-focused coping is a cognitive mechanism whereby people want to alleviate their feelings of guilt by dealing with the problem that led to the emotion. Given that guilt is caused when people focus on the moral nature of their behavior, guilty persons will focus on their behavior that caused the emotion and how to fix that problem. For example, if people feel guilty when they watch an ad about starving children in Ghana, they might alleviate their guilt by donating money to the charitable fund—thus, dealing with the problem. Shame, however, activates emotion-focused coping. Emotion-focused coping leads people to focus on their negative feelings. Recall that shame is caused when people connect negative behavior with their personality or self. Given that the self cannot be fixed per se, emotion-focused coping leads people to deal with their negative feelings—but, not the problem that caused those feelings. Based on this reasoning, Duhachek, Agrawal, and Han (2012) suggested that guilt appeals would pair best with a gain framed (i.e., what you gain by engaging in the recommended behavior) message and shame appeals would pair best with a loss frame (i.e., what you lose by not engaging in the recommended behavior). Overall, their data was consistent with hypotheses: When guilt appeals were paired with a gain frame, intentions to binge drink (the target behavior in this study) were lower and they were able to process the message more quickly (measured in seconds). When shame messages were paired with a loss frame, intentions to drink were lowered and the message was processed more quickly. This described interaction effect was statistically significant (Duhachek, Agrawal, & Han, 2012). Vieira and Ayrosa’s (2015) study also suggests that feelings of guilt (and shame) could explain an interaction effect between drinking and regulatory focus. Specifically, they found that guilt paired with a prevention message (gain frame) aided persuading friends to not drink and drive. Others have also found interesting inter-relationships among framing, guilt, and cognitive outcomes. Quick, Kam, Morgan, Liberona, and Smith (2014), for example, found that loss frames were related to stronger feelings of guilt and weaker feelings of happiness.
The words shame and guilt are often used interchangeably in lay language. That slipperiness in our English language is likely due to the lack of precision offered by the English language’s emotion dialogue. Yet, these terms represent distinct emotions with distinct causes and effects.
Shame is caused when individuals feel little control over negative behavior (or thoughts) that they caused. Shame is attributed to the person. Shame leads to avoidance-oriented, emotion-focused behaviors and cognitions. People feeling shameful want to hide, “bury themselves,” and ignore the problem that caused the shame. Shame increases anger and rage and lowers self-efficacy. Together, this paints a picture of a destructive emotion that does not facilitate healthy (or risk averse) behaviors.
In fact, persuasive appeals to shame are less effective—in many cases ineffective—at garnering attention, changing attitudes, or impacting behavioral intentions.
Some researchers, however, have suggested that some public health behaviors such as STI testing or sexual risk-taking behaviors have shameful feelings attached to them regardless of any intention, or lack thereof, to cause shame in people. In such cases, it is helpful to understand the message strategies that can mitigate the harmful effects of shame. The studies reviewed in this article suggest that humor can be one such strategy. With a shame-inducing health issue, humor may disarm the negative impacts (i.e., avoidance behaviors) of shame by increasing positive emotions and self-efficacy. Yoon (2015) suggested that humor, in these conditions, has “the potential to facilitate communication about shame-inducing health issues” (p. 126). Another strategy is the use of loss-framed appeals. Given that shamed people are likely to engage in emotion-focused coping, regulatory fit theory implies that a loss-framed message might have better fit with people experiencing this emotion. If the fit of an emotion fits the design of the persuasive message, the target audience can more easily process the message and adopt its recommendations.
Guilt engages different process than that of shame. Guilt leads people to reconsider their behaviors. In this sense, guilt is a problem-focused emotion that causes people to want to mitigate their guilt by engaging in positive behaviors. Early research on guilt showed that guilt leads to altruistic behavior such as volunteerism. Guilt does not appear to have a relationship with one’s self-efficacy or feelings of anger—that is, guilt does not trigger negative and unintended outcomes in the audiences. Indeed, there is little evidence that guilt leads to destructive emotional or cognitive processes in people. Some have argued that, in this way, guilt is perhaps one of the most “moral emotions”: It leads people to consider the morality of their behavior and “make it right.”
It is important to mention that the outcomes of guilt appeals are dependent on the intensity of the appeal. In the commercial, or for-profit domain, several studies have found that intense guilt appeals cause angry feelings, reactance, and message rejection. Yet, in the public health domain, the intensity of guilt appeals is positively related to attitudes and intentions in the direction of message acceptance. Yet—they still cause angry feelings. There are no studies, at the time of this article, examining the intensity of shame appeals.
Limitations and Future Directions
The research reviewed here provides insight into how shame and guilt, as well as shame and guilt appeals, affect cognitive and emotional processing. But, there are a number of limitations that need to be addressed in these studies that would impact the future of research programs of this ilk.
First, it is rare to find a study that explicitly examines the role of the intensity of shame and guilt. Frijda (2007) noted, “Strength or intensity hardly forms a subject of research in emotions research. That is odd” (p. 153). Likewise, Clore (1994) wrote, “An adequate account of emotion, therefore, would have to address the question of what determines intensity” (p. 387). Certainly, scholars have mentioned that both guilt and shame are intense emotions. At the same time, it has been proposed that shame is a more intense emotion than guilt. Systematic investigation of what determines the intensity, its variance (and the correlates of that variance), and whether outcomes of these emotions is a function of the emotion’s intensity needs to be undertaken.
Second, a weakness throughout the literature on emotional appeals lies in the definition, or lack thereof, of what constitutes an emotional appeal. Many studies define an emotional appeal as a persuasive message that causes the stated emotion (e.g., a persuasive message that evokes guilt in people). But, this definition is weak at best for several reasons. First, this definition confounds an emotional appeal with the outcomes of an emotional appeal. Imagine a teacher defining “curriculum” as material that causes learning. What if the material does not cause learning in some students? Was it then not curricula? Second, the definition of an emotional appeal must regard the features of the message. Research of this ilk—that is, the features of guilt and shame appeals that are at the heart of their definition—must be taken on. As scholars, we must have a clear, consistent, and theoretically sound view of what the characteristics of these appeals are. Third, this flawed definition of emotional appeals fails to recognize the array of emotions that emotional appeals can engender. People can become angry when a message attempts to shame them. And, guilt appeals can lead to moderate amounts of fear.
Third, scholars must continue to advance methodologically when studying the effects cognitive outcomes due to shame and guilt. Great advancements have been made in the world of fMRI research and how people engaging in emotional processing are activating distinct portions of the brain relative to people processing messages in other ways. Eye-tracking research can shed light on how much attention is paid to different portions of messages, how quickly attention is lost, and the percent of language of a message that was read by the message recipient. This is to say that we need to find new ways to assess how message recipients process emotional messages beyond that of self-report. It may be difficult for people to assess the amount of thinking that a message caused, the amount of cognitive capacity that a message utilizes, or whether a message will trigger long-term memory storage. Technology, though, has advanced in ways that can aid a more innovative understanding of emotional appeals.
Health communicators need to continually advance their understanding of what messages should be used with what audiences, at what times, to elicit what effects. Clearly, not all appeals are appropriate in all situations with all target audiences. Great care must be taken to segment our audiences demographically and psychographically so that we design messages that will be optimally persuasive for them. But, those steps cannot be taken, or at least they will be undermined, if we do not have the research that matches audience characteristics with messages. The studies that were reviewed here show that guilt appeals can be an effective strategy for compelling people to engage in healthy and/or risk averse behaviors. Guilt appeals tend to be processed in a constructive manner that makes people want to remedy the negative situation. But, shame appeals, in most cases, comprise a strategy that should be avoided. Shame causes people to look inward, feel embarrassed, and become angry. As public health practitioners and scholars, we should advocate for message designs that empower people—not weaken them.
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