Glossing the Gilding on Guilt

Henry Richards | January 27, 2012

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

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?


  1. I’m having a hard time accepting some of these conclusions – not because they do not make sense, but because the research and logic involves more assumptions than I am comfortable accepting.

    I do not like when people talk about how researchers have found areas of the brain responsible for: “morality,” “curiosity,” “other-focused areas,” and so on, because what follows tends to involve poor reasoning and biological reductionism. The variables are almost always poorly defined and the findings make it sound as if this is all neurobiologically mapped out and firmly established in the neuroscientific literature, when it is not. In my mind, the ways these studies are used is not much different than phrenology in its day.

    Even if you were to find some localized functional network or neural system, you would have a long way to go before you can start suggesting evolutionary possibilities (read the studies on developmental neurobiology and embodied embedded cognition, emergent properties, etc. to get what I mean). Just because it involves the brain, does not mean evolution put it there. I would also encourage those interested to read Allan Schore’s book: “Affect Regulation and Disoders of the Self” to have another neurobiological take on the emergent phenomenon of guilt and shame in the context of attachment and emotion regulation.

    Lastly, I have another problem with the methodology… as a clinical psychologist, I can tell you that it is very hard to get true feelings to work ‘on cue’, yet the researchers claim that they were able to elicit just that? In addition we all know we can often ‘think’ about our feelings without feeling them… there is a big difference; I doubt very much the researchers would be able to get true feelings of shame to arise on cue – I work with patients for months to get at some of that. My understanding of guilt is that it is a feeling bad about something you did, while shame is feeling bad about yourself as a person. This is similar to what is argued here, and yes, they should involve slightly different areas of the brain, but the reasoning utilized here would not convince me of the how or why.

  2. Yet even shame is felt only in the context of the Other(s), so we must be careful to simply list is as self-focused versus other focused. Ultimately, I am only because we are.

    Eden doesn’t sound very male dominated at all. God, plucking Adam’s rib and creating Eve operates (in this version of creation) from the perspective of male domination but it completely unclear if Adam has imbibed yet. After all, it is not Adam who finds and offers the apple so perhaps Eve had more power than this quiz allows.

    Finally, once more it is God who imbues guilt by shaming Eve and Adam.

    • Thanks for the comment. I love the alternative interpretation. And if we are able to think about it (the question raised by this whole blog site) it does seem to be God fomenting all the problems in the first place. You get an A+++ on the quiz! As you can see from some other comments, some readers graded me as F- for the scientific musings.

  3. Thanks for the comment Brad.

    This is a blog post, not my attempt to convince anyone of this kind of science. I share to some extent your reservations about localizing complex behaviors and experiences in specific brain structures. More often now, however, functional units (established by density of receptor types and studies of activation during fMRI) are referenced in localization rather than “physical” bumps on the brain, which is at least a little improvement over interpreting bumps on the head. The science of neuro-dynamics, as some have termed it, is much more advanced than in the day when John Eccles’ dualist-interactionism made made sense scientifically. [I think it cans still be useful philosophically.] The current state of knowledge, on the other hand, is still too fraught with limitations and inconsistencies to be reliable enough to pass muster in a Daubert hearing for federal evidence rules. But in a blog opinion piece, I was not putting the science (or myself) on trial. By the way, you didn’t challenge my implied claims about Adam and Eve. I doubt it you take that mythopoetic knowledge more seriously than the neuroscience, but perhaps you knew that virtually all readers would translate from the myth to the meaning. This is much the way the science can be used in an “essay” piece, which are inherently about ideas, and what can be associated creatively with them (except in a scientific journal, where the rules are obviously tighter).

    On the methodology. I routinely use autobiographical memories to prime affects (and sometimes vice versa) in clinical assessments. In the research I cited, we can doubt that what the subjects experienced when recalling their own chosen keywords and trying to relive memories was shame, guilt, sadness, or any combination of the three. We can say with some confidence that sugar metabolism in various functional regions varied in similar ways across subjects when the target memory was of a certain affect type. That’s not as interesting or provocative as my use of the study (I hope).

    • My apologies Henry, but I am inclined to be a continued Socratic gadfly about your position.

      You seem to be suggesting that since this is “a blog opinion piece,” I am being too hard on you. If the above is opinion, then perhaps I am, but you have not made that clear; it reads as an attempt at a rational or scientific argument and it would be easy for your readers to also be confused. If you were to be writing about your preference of books, or preference for white over red wine, you would be stating your opinion, and I would have nothing to say to you (though I would not be reading this blog either). But you seem to be making a kind of argument – and that involves a standard for logic and reasoning that goes further than mere opinion. You also use the word ‘science’ in your post, and refer to ‘scientific research,’ which I can only presume was done for the rhetorical purpose of furthering your position. If not, I hope you can appreciate my confusion. From your comments, I gather that you feel like the science and logic within your position is ‘on trial.’ If that is so, then in a way, you would be correct – that is how logic and science works (it sticks its neck out there for refutation); this is what separates these kinds of arguments from mere opinion.

      It is my view that scientific assumptions and biases can be part of the cultural faiths that we adopt to help us make sense of a world that is perhaps otherwise unintelligible – this is part of our
      cultural invention. Using ‘the gap’ between ‘data’ and ‘interpretation’ to create a version of man that is biased toward genetic pre-specification reduces human freedom and agency so that we do not have to carry the heavy burden of responsibility or realize the terror of our being the sole constructors of the reality we inhabit. As one who studies Ernest Becker, you should be aware of this possibility more than most. But instead, it seems to me that you are offering your position, based in part on certain theoretical assumptions (equivalent to a belief-system of sorts), but when questioned, you want to ‘firewall’ your position under the guise of it being nothing but “an opinion piece.” I do not think this is in the spirit of Becker’s work. If it is indeed an opinion, then take the scientific references out and refrain from making anything that sounds like a logical deduction.

      I do not mean this as a personal attack – I value this website very much and it would be sad to see it become something where science and logic is held to a lower standard. My own views on some of these topics are there to see on my own site – you are welcome to critique them if I am indeed confused or misguided in holding some of these positions. I recently wrote an article on the ‘mind-brain’ relationship and what it might mean for neuroscientists and consumers of their research. Interested folks can check it out:

  4. Sorry about such a long delay in answering your comment, Brad. I have to admit your post here seems a bit preachy and in it you tell me what I should do, thus engaging the old superego, and the possibility of guilt and shame. The research, very briefly reviewed in my blog piece, was not mine, and it has already be vetted by peer review. To the extent I got the researcher”s work down with reasonable accuracy, the empirical and logical grounds for scientific reasoning have been met. I say reasoning rather than argument, since I view argument as a bit antiquated, and the view of science and logic that I think you are proposing I feel is particularly narrow, at least it cramps my style. (By the way, I am sure with a little Googling, you will find that I have published 8 times the mode of scientific papers for a published clinical psychologists. Unfortunately, the mode is 1. If you exclude Dissertation Abstracts the mode is probably still 0, but I haven’t checked in a decade and it might be creeping up toward 1. I also convinced NIH to fund a study for $2.5 Million. Pretty good for a rhetorical view of science.

    Have you considered that many of our philosophers of science and are comfortable thinking of reason as an emotion, and certainly not bounded by deductive logic.

    Since multiple theories can fit the same data just as closely, and theories that don’t fit the data very well ultimately are found to provide more foundational explanations, the argument metaphor is science seems less useful than the utility or the generativeness of science-type explanations. Few hypothetic-deductive realists would find Becker’s work “scientific” or very useful, because of its high level of encompassing generality and abstraction. The degree of explanatory span that Becker attempted is usually reserved for mathematical formula for relationships. I am not aware of one critical experiment (like the Einsteins bets of Mercury’s perihelion, deflection of light by the mass of the sun, and red-shift of stellar light) in psychology. (Such dares always end up enlightening me). As a model, I find Becker full of contradictions, especially in his strong bifurcation of worshipful relationship to God/cosmos, and his pretense to always bow to scientific reasoning.

    Have you ever tried to ask for a correction on the opinion section of a newspaper (excluding names, citations, and the like)?

    My guess is that our exchange will feel more like wrestling than dialogue, but wrestling is good for the muscles, and you get to know your opponent at an intimate, if uncomfortable, level. Not that I am asking you to lower your standards…


  5. Hey Brad,

    I did check out your article on the mind-brain relationship. I wonder how Artifical Intelligence fits in your view. Subjective experience does not seem to come into play there and if it did, we probably would have no way to “know” and we wouldn’t care very much either. Maybe the level of analysis is wrong. It’s not mind-brain that has to be understood, but matter-form. Do I hear Plato calling from the mouth of the cave?


  6. Pingback: secrecy, shame, guilt, and moral absolutism « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.