Evolution, social roles and the differences in shame and guilt

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Author: Paul Gilbert
Date: Winter 2003
From: Social Research(Vol. 70, Issue 4)
Publisher: New School for Social Research
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,923 words

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THE fear of shame and ridicule can be so strong that people will risk serious physical injury or even death to avoid it. One of the reasons for this is because shame can indicate serious damage to social acceptance and a breakdown in a variety of social relationships. The evolutionary root of shame is in a self-focused, social threat system related to competitive behavior and the need to prove oneself acceptable/desirable to others (Gilbert, 1989; 2002a). Guilt, however, evolved from a care-giving and "avoiding doing harm to others" system (Gilbert, 1998; Tangney and Dearing, 2002). Guilt will be explored here primarily to offer a contrast with shame and thus clarify the serf-focused nature of shame.

The evolutionary precursors for shame can be traced back to the way all animals must be able to detect and cope with social threats (Gilbert and McGuire, 1998). For many animals, attentiveness to conspecifics that could inflict harm, and are threats to them, is highly adaptive, and social anxiety, flight, or submission/appeasement are salient defenses (Gilbert, 2001). Social threats (unlike nonsocial threats) often involve communicating signals that impact on the state of mind of the threatening other(s); for example, a submissive display may be sufficient to stop a more dominate from seriously attacking a subordinate. Although shame requires a symbolic sense of self (Lewis, 1992), it too is regulated by social threats and automatic defenses to protect the self from threats posed by others (Gilbert, 2002a). Indeed, there is now evidence that shame can act as an inner warning signal of threats and challenges to the self, with a triggering of automatic defenses--especially desires to escape (flight) and submissive behavior (Keltner and Harker, 1998), anger (Tangney et al., 1996), and concealment (MacDonald, and Morley, 2001).

Guilt is not rooted in "threat to the self" or needs for rapid defenses of the self. Rather, for guilt there must first be some concern with the welfare of others, such that the (distress) experiences of others matter. One archetypal origin of caring and responsiveness to distress is probably in the parent-infant/kin care system (MacLean, 1985). Concern for others matures in children as they become aware of distress in others (including awareness of being a source for others distress), develop empathy and sympathy, and wish to help others (Eisenberg, 2002). Unlike shame, guilt is not associated with anger at others (Tangney et al., 1996) and reparation is chosen over concealment (Tangney and Dearing, 2002). Further, unlike shame, guilt is not associated with feeling inferior to others (for example, making negative social comparisons), or submissive behavior, social anxiety, or (nonpsychotic) depression (Gilbert, 2000b; Tangney and Dearing, 2002). Although never tested, it is possible that guilt may require a capacity to tolerate sadness. For example, while driving home, a cat suddenly rushes out in front of your car and you hit it. One could drive on and think "stupid cat"; feel shame by blaming oneself for not driving with due care (or think others will accuse one of such), or one...

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Source Citation
Gilbert, Paul. "Evolution, social roles and the differences in shame and guilt." Social Research, vol. 70, no. 4, 2003, p. 1205+. Accessed 12 June 2021.

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