In Brief

What's the difference between shame and guilt? And does it matter?

The difference between the two emotions is best described as public and private, according to June Tangney, PhD, a George Mason University psychology professor and author of several books on moral emotions.

"You feel shame when others know what you've done; you feel guilt when only you know," she said in an invited address at APA's 2005 Annual Convention. "When people feel shame, they focus on the self--they often feel powerless, worthless or exposed," she explained. "When people feel guilt, they tend to focus on behavior. Guilt is more proactive."

In her research, Tangney has found that guilt goes with empathy, and shame goes with anger. "Shame-prone people are more prone to anger and don't manage their anger constructively," she noted. Shame, she added, is associated with virtually every DSM disorder.

But can shame at an early age predict later behavior? To find out, Tangney questioned 550 fifth-graders and their parents and then followed up with them in eighth grade and again at age 18. Those who were most prone to shame were more likely to have unsafe sex, drank at a younger age and were less likely to apply to college. Those more prone to feeling guilt were exactly opposite: They were less likely to try drugs and alcohol, less likely to become criminals, less likely to commit suicide and more likely to practice safe sex.

Tangney is currently examining the implications of shame and guilt in a longitudinal study of incarcerated offenders to determine whether moral emotions can predict criminal behavior and recidivism. So far, her team has questioned 500 inmates in a detention center near Washington, D.C.

They've found that moral emotions can indeed be measured: The shame-prone inmates tend to deny their responsibility for their crimes, and their shame doesn't deter them from acting aggressively. But guilt-prone inmates tend to accept responsibility for their crimes and show much less aggression.

"Shame is not useful or protective," said Tangney. "Guilt is moderately preventive."

Based on such results, Tangney believes shame and guilt especially matter in predicting and preventing crime and that interventions targeted at moral emotions can help to reduce criminal behavior and recidivism. She urged corrective authorities to emphasize moral change and action, not anxiety and shame.

"We know that treatment works in some way," she explained. "Punishment doesn't work."