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guilt and shame, nouns and verbs, actions and words
April 15, 2014 1:21 PM   Subscribe

"When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices" asserts professor Adam Grant (of the Wharton School) in a NYT opinion piece entitled "Raising a Moral Child". Some research suggests that when parents "praise effort rather than ability, children develop a stronger work ethic and become more motivated" and Grant draws sharp distinctions between how shame and guilt affect us citing several experiments and studies which support the conclusions that when teaching children about moral behaviors "nouns work better than verbs" and "if we want our children to care about others, we need to teach them to feel guilt rather than shame when they misbehave." Grant has written an entire book about how these concepts influence our generosity and success, and how powerfully feeling "guilt rather than shame" as children can shape us.

While these arguments are convincing, it's also interesting to consider that Grant and the researchers he cites grew up, themselves, in predominantly "western" societies which have historically emphasized guilt rather than "eastern" societies which have historically emphasized shame. To what degree are our reactions to guilt and shame simply human nature, or perhaps connected to our cultural background or even the languages we use to communicate? Maybe the answer is not so definite, but falls somewhere along a spectrum...in the vast expanse between Tiger Moms and Free Range Kids?
posted by trackofalljades (38 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm ashamed that I'm not working right now.
But I don't feel guilty about it.

Explain that, science!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:34 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


Some of this makes sense to me, but as someone interested in political philosophy I'm extremely wary of characterizations like "western" and "eastern," and "guilt society" and "shame society" seem similarly vague and unsubstantiated. To discuss the degree to which a society uses guilt or shame, in what combination, in what institutions, from the level of the individual to the level of the entire society, in schools, in churches, temples and mosques, at home and in the public square, in the punishment of crime, in the reprimanding of children - these things are extraordinarily complex, perhaps the most extraordinarily complex things humans will ever have to riddle out, and unfortunately they don't lend themselves easily to glib society-wide generalizations.
posted by koeselitz at 1:36 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


Having been raised in what I guess would be considered a shame-based culture, I tend to agree that it's better to teach children guilt rather than shame. Guilt puts the focus on one's behavior, which one can alter, while shame is a condemnation of the self, which can warp a child's psyche in unhealthy ways. When I did something wrong as a kid, I wasn't told "you did something bad," but rather "you are bad."

As an adult, I've had huge problems in relationships because when I'm angry at someone, I come from that mindset of judging the person rather than their actions. So I am one of those who will say "You are _____" rather than "You are being _____," making that terrible relationship-killing mistake of criticizing the person rather than their actions.

I suppose guilt can lead to its own problems, but in my own experience shame has been much more damaging.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 1:43 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


To discuss the degree to which a society uses guilt or shame, in what combination, in what institutions, from the level of the individual to the level of the entire society, in schools, in churches, temples and mosques, at home and in the public square, in the punishment of crime, in the reprimanding of children - these things are extraordinarily complex, perhaps the most extraordinarily complex things humans will ever have to riddle out, and unfortunately they don't lend themselves easily to glib society-wide generalizations.

On the flip side, the ideas could also be deeply embedded in the fabric of the society (see the post on race in America, for an example), such that the concepts do provide explanatory power and do influence actions, thoughts, etc. Glib generalizations about it may not be helpful, but then, glib generalizations rarely are.

I like reading research in this area, and enjoy ethnographies that touch on it. I think both guilt and shame are/can be both highly adaptive and maladaptive depending on [stuff], though, so it may be a bit much to be all "rah-rah guilt" and "booooo shame" for reasons and science or whatever.
posted by jsturgill at 1:47 PM on April 15


"praise effort rather than ability"

How about praising achievement?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:54 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


So they only get praise if they complete something, Chocolate Pickle? Or reach some end result that is quantitative?
posted by ZaneJ. at 1:57 PM on April 15


how about praising successive approximations, while keeping the starting bar low enough that anyone can feel capable, and managing the process at the level of the individual to ensure no one gets left behind?
posted by rebent at 1:59 PM on April 15 [5 favorites]


I've heard of guilt vs. shame described exactly the opposite - shame is a social & guilt is self. Therefore shame is easier, no?

I wouldn't want to be praised for achievement. You want to internalize some self-confidence, and pride over the things you can control.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:00 PM on April 15


Attention Child Unit Three: you have completed 67% of the requisite room cleaning operations. This is your 33% encouragement statement, continue operations.
End of message.
posted by aramaic at 2:02 PM on April 15 [34 favorites]


aramaic, you have just both put a smile on my face and left me in a geek crisis about how to properly address my little one in such a situation...should first born be most correctly identified as Child Unit Zero? :)
posted by trackofalljades at 2:19 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


trackofalljades, yes, unless you want Child Unit Zero to operate in VB.
posted by ryoshu at 2:22 PM on April 15 [6 favorites]


I believe END OF LINE is the proper closing statement in these situations.


End of line.
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:39 PM on April 15


I've heard of guilt vs. shame described exactly the opposite - shame is a social & guilt is self. Therefore shame is easier, no?

I can see that. This issue seems potentially touchy merely because people's definitions of "shame" and "guilt" will tend to differ.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 2:47 PM on April 15


It's funny, I don't remember my parents saying anything like "good job" or "good girl" when I would succeed as a kid. They would say how proud they were of me. If I did something bad, it was "you did something bad, do you understand why it's bad? Yes? You have to make it right, then."

The big carrot in my household as I was growing up was responsibility. You know how little kids want to feel grown up? Mom and Dad knew that and used it. Big girls make the bed, don't you know. Big girls make their own lunch to take to school. And we would do those things, hoping to feel grown up. And if we didn't get it right the first time, we were motivated to try again. The more we took on because we wanted to feel "big", the more responsibility Mom and Dad gave us as we got older.

By the time I hit middle school, I was boggled to discover that my peers blew off their assignments at school, had no idea how to do chores much less be motivated to do them.
posted by LN at 2:52 PM on April 15 [8 favorites]


I am a faculty member in roughly the same field as Adam Grant (Management) and I just want to say that his book is not really focused on raising a moral child. His book focuses more broadly on the effect of giving behaviors and success. There was a post about him and his book a little while ago here. I read this piece earlier today and really liked it, especially because he clearly references the base literature that he is talking about. I appreciate that about the post as well.
posted by bove at 2:56 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


There's a certain overlap with Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Interesting...
posted by K.P. at 4:21 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


Guilt and shame are near synonyms, right?
posted by scruss at 4:29 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


A recent study has shown that if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go fucking ape shit.
posted by Xalf at 4:44 PM on April 15 [14 favorites]


That said, I did RTFA, and then I asked my 2 year old son to "be a helper."
posted by Xalf at 4:45 PM on April 15


Chocolate Pickle: there is no more need to praise achievement than there is to pay someone a reward for earning a paycheck.
posted by idiopath at 4:58 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


In the NYT piece, scruss, Grant clarifies what he means by "guilt" and "shame" several times. You make a valid point though and that's kind of my point in mentioning language. I don't consider it an afterthought. I think the way we speak or write about these concepts absolutely colors the way we think about them.

I personally loved that Onion piece when I read it, Xalf, but if this NYT opinion thing counts as "long form" then I'm a little bit frightened of what's considered acceptable reading these days. It's a little dense maybe, but long?
posted by trackofalljades at 5:00 PM on April 15


I've been feeding people Brené Brown's TED talks on vulnerability and shame for a while now, because they are really awesome and are something most people need to hear.

I look forward to digging through the links in this post to see how much of Grant's research echoes Brown's work.
posted by hippybear at 5:01 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


You encounter people who have faith in this technique of manipulation when dealing with anyone, not just small children. I remember there used to be a PSA on TV, exhorting people not to dump grease down the sink. It featured an unfriendly looking science type guy, with an I-smell-shit expression, asking the viewer if really he wanted "to be the kind of person who dumps grease down the sink". What kind of person is that? Why is it bad to do this? These questions were not addressed. I wanted to pour a quart of lard down there every time the ad came on.
posted by thelonius at 5:02 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


I would dig through the links in the NYT piece too, hippybear, because I don't think I included all of them and there are a bunch!

You have a good point, bove, my apologies...that sentence ended up fatfingered after a bunch of editing during a busy morning (UTC -10h out here). I don't think I can go back and fix that though? :(
posted by trackofalljades at 5:05 PM on April 15


You encounter people who have faith in this technique of manipulation when dealing with anyone, not just small children.

Grant points out that in at least some of the cited research, there's a steep falloff of the guilt/shame disparity after a certain young age (think it was about ten?) but speaking personally as a parent with background including management, marketing, and a little bit of leadership I have to say that at least in some cases being aware of this seemingly irrelevant distinction when communicating with adults can actually make a difference. Of course, that's just some anecdata talking.
posted by trackofalljades at 5:08 PM on April 15


My parents used praise, and money. When I was 6 years old, I was allowed to wash dishes. My parents put a quarter on top of the refrigerator, which was next to the sink.

I stood on my stool, washing dishes, and looking up at the top of the fridge. At the end of my session, I was given the quarter.

The next day, I would hop onto my Road Runner bike, complete with banana handlebars and white basket, the seat was sparkly purple, and my brothers had helped me put a baseball card into the spokes so it would make a, "brrrrrr, brrrrr" sound as I pedaled.

Up the road, past the vicious collie dog that was changed to a tree, barking and lunging, and then up, up, up the hill, pumping my legs over and over, until I reached the corner store.

25 cents for 25 pieces of candy. Bazooka Joe, Wax Lips, Candy Necklace, Dots on paper, and even candy cigarettes. All into a paper bag and into my basket. Then it was whizzz! Whizzz! down the hill! and faster, faster, the dog now lying in the shade and not interested in me, and back home where I could pour out my treasures.

There wasn't a lot of shame or guilt at my house, we were told to do something and we did it. My folks were affectionate, but not overly so. They read us stories, we did things together, and I remember being put in charge of setting the table at an early age. My parents were nice people who truly cared about and loved children, and I think we all sensed that.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:13 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


There wasn't a lot of shame or guilt at my house, we were told to do something and we did it.

I think I understand what you mean to say, Marie Mon Dieu, but perhaps you're discounting the influence that shame or guilt had on your decisions, as motivating forces, simply because you didn't feel overtly guilty or shameful often? I mean, hopefully, nobody does, right?

Why would someone work hard for the quarter, believe it has any value, and exchange it for the candy instead of just taking the candy (I'm sure the store was busy at times) if not for at least a little guilt or shame? They're just fundamental emotional forces. They kind of exist to some limited degree as a part of your life at all times, don't they?
posted by trackofalljades at 5:25 PM on April 15


Yeah, I don't buy this distinction between guilt and shame either. You are what you do, right?
posted by en forme de poire at 5:48 PM on April 15


Shame is my middle name!
posted by oceanjesse at 6:31 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I don't buy this distinction between guilt and shame either. You are what you do, right?

No, you are not. Everyone makes mistakes, bad choices, impulse decisions. Those moments do no define us, they are anomalies. Also, the choices made earlier in one's life should not be allowed to stand as defining qualities for one who has grown and changed and become a better person.

The difference between guilt and shame is, one is about what you DID, the other is about who you ARE. What you DID is an event in time, who you ARE is immutable. If you only have what you DID to define who you ARE, then you are immutable and incapable of learning from mistakes. You will never make other choices, you will always be what you were back then, never progressing.

Don't define yourself or others by their actions or expressions. Give them (and yourself) the chance to walk away from that moment in time and to become something new, different, and better.

That is the difference between guilt and shame.
posted by hippybear at 7:57 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


I distinguish between shame vs guilt this way:

A negative thing happens as a result of my actions.

Guilt: Oh, I wish that hadn't happened! I should have been more careful. (Ownership of actions and influence over an outcome)

Shame: Oh I wish that hadn't happened! I am a terrible person. (Disproportionate sense of personalization and fault having to with failings in character and/or being)

The former leaves room for change and empowerment and action, the latter paralyzes and demeans and makes way for inaction.
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:04 PM on April 15 [10 favorites]


I sure this comes as no surprise given her username, but Hermione Granger has given the textbook answer. ;)
posted by trackofalljades at 8:55 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


I like the explanation that guilt is internal, whereas shame is something externally imposed. There are some subtleties, e.g. there's such a thing as internalized shame which lacks the authenticity of what guilt connotes. But I like this separation because it's consistent with the theory of intrinsic v.s. extrinsic motivation.
posted by polymodus at 10:05 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


Some of this makes sense to me, but as someone interested in political philosophy I'm extremely wary of characterizations like "western" and "eastern," and "guilt society" and "shame society" seem similarly vague and unsubstantiated.

I agree. To use Sinic society as an example (only because I'm more familiar with it), there's thousands of years of philosophical and religious ideas that were either developed internally (Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism) or imported from abroad (Buddhism, Communism) and all these ideas continue to develop and play off one another. Even something like Confucianism which is primarily seen as an Eastern philosophy has a much more developed and nuanced perspective on guilt and shame:
First, in the case of Confucius, he was quite clearly, at least in what he wrote in the Analects (and how this is carried over into the writings of Mencius), not saying that morality is simply a matter of externally-generated standards that can be used to shame individuals into doing the right thing. He was very much saying that we must internalize ethical standards, some of which have universal aspects, and constantly look inward and ask if we are living up to them in our daily lives. Many quotations could be marshaled in support of this idea, here' s one
The Master said: “A ruler who has rectified himself never gives orders, and all goes well. A ruler who has not rectified himself gives orders, and the people never follow. (13.6)
In other words, if a person has not undergone serious self-cultivation, reflecting upon and acting upon ethical rightness, then he or she can never be effective in defining moral standards for a community. Before you can say to another what the right thing to do is, you must already be thinking and doing the right thing in your own life.

Here's a quote from Mencius along the same lines:
"Mencius said: 'The ten thousand things [everything] are all there in me. And there's no joy greater than looking within and finding myself faithful to them. Treat others as you would be treated. Devote yourself to that, for there's no more direct approach to Humanity." (236)
This doesn't sound to me like a predominantly externally-generated moral order. Indeed, the Confucian-Mencian tradition is based upon a complex interplay of external social responsibility and internal personal conscience.

It should also be said that Confucius looked down upon those who carried out their social responsibilities just for show or without genuine personal and emotional engagement. Going through the motions to "save face" is completely contrary to his teachings.
(link)
posted by FJT at 11:48 PM on April 15


It may be more effective, but it's also manipulative and awful. Telling kids they're the "kind of person" that does various actions may work to motivate them to stop doing something, or they may just fucking internalize that they're a shitty kind of person. Or both, which is still not a win in my book. It may work, but it's wrong all over. Just think of "You made a mess" vs "You're messy." Yeah, the latter may work better, but do we really want to be inculcating guilt in our children just to get them to behave better?
posted by corb at 7:04 AM on April 16


And yes, the article defines these differently, but I find these definitions incredibly arbitrary.
posted by corb at 7:06 AM on April 16


Corb, who are you arguing with? It can't be the article, which explicitly speaks about the danger of negative judgments about the person ("You're messy") and advocates “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better” as the most effective response to bad behaviour.
posted by Turbo-B at 8:40 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


Everyone makes mistakes, bad choices, impulse decisions. Those moments do no define us, they are anomalies.

I agree with the first but not the second part of this, I guess. My gut reaction is that it's easy to be virtuous if you are never tempted to be otherwise, and so rather than being anomalies, our worst moments are actually the truest indications of our characters. That doesn't mean you can't change: if anything it makes the need to change and to cultivate your moral faculties more urgent.

Reading the other comments, though, I can see that it's also possible that this viewpoint has mostly been bad for my mental health and has not done much to actually make me a better person.

Also, on reflection, feeling shame for being a fallen, intrinsically sinful person was emphasized in the religious tradition I was brought up in, but of course in that tradition there was also a mechanism for absolving this shame through contrition, confession and subsequent forgiveness. If you have the first part but not the second, perhaps this is particularly paralyzing.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:40 PM on April 20


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