A conversation on the Becker LinkedIn Discussion Group centered on guilt (thanks to Liz), and I would like to offer some observations about guilt here in The Denial File.
Right off the bat there’s the problem of definition. How does guilt differ from shame, from sadness? To what extent is guilt a derivative of anxiety?
There is recent scientific evidence on the former question. A team of European scientists have mapped guilt-specific processing in the prefrontal cortex. (Wagner, N’Diaye, Ethofer, & Vuilleumier, in Cerebral Cortex, November 2011) The methodology involved having subjects relive, while undergoing functional MRI scanning, recent personal experiences of guilt, shame, sadness, and emotionally neutral events. The brain regions involved in each emotion were then combined across subjects and the brain regions activated by each emotion were compared to each other and to knowledge about localization of other experiences and operations, such as–of particular importance here—the mental operation of focusing on oneself, or focusing on others. The researchers found that the brain regions that were most active for guilt experiences were different from those related to shame. The shame areas were active simultaneously with self-focus areas. In contrast, the guilt-specific areas were coactive with other-focus areas, and especially areas whose activation is triggered by the coordination of goals and interactions with another person, such as in a competitive game. All the emotions investigated (sadness, guilt, and shame) rely on brain areas that are functionally impaired in psychopaths and other antisocial disorders. The bottom line for this study is that (in terms of brain functioning) guilt subsumes shame (all areas involved in shame are active during guilt) but not vice versa, and that guilt is closer to sadness than to shame. Guilt is an other-focused experience and shame is a self-focused experience. From other contrasts, the researchers concluded that guilt is evoked when a social norm is violated, whereas shame predominates when there is a violation of personal values. This suggests that guilt has evolved to maintain one’s relationship with others, and shame has evolved to maintain the values undergirding the self. [Unfortunately all the subjects in this study were female, leaving open the possibility (based on the widely held theory that men have no conscience) that the study might not be replicated with male subjects.]
As to my first question (Is guilt a derivative of anxiety?) my knowledge extends only to psychoanalytic theory, in which guilt is a topically defined anxiety experienced by the ego in reference to the superego. Guilt is the self feeling anxious about its relationship to the internalized parent, a relationship which has been jeopardized by some action or wish. Of course, psychoanalysis presumes that most guilt is unconscious, heavily defended against, and unfounded in reality, i.e., neurotic. In seeing guilt as related to an internalized other, psychoanalytic theory comports with the neuro-scientific findings cited above. Psychoanalysis also (like the summarized study) views shame as a self-focused emotion (with an anal and urethral in libidinal cathexis). Shame is anxiety about a shortcoming in the self. It could be said that it is anxiety about the capacity and adequacy of the self. Shame says in effect “I do not want to be seen.” The desire to hide. [As a result, it often defends against exhibitionism and unacknowledged ambition].
With that all above taken into account (which is easily said but not so easily done) guilt and shame are used somewhat differently on the offerings [atonements, sacrifices for putting the reader through all this] that will follow in my next post.
Pop Quiz: Did Adam and Eve experience guilt or shame when they violated God’s instructions? Since Adam was in charge (in their male dominated, two-person world) did the two experience the same emotion?