Psychology Of Self-Conscious Emotions Research Paper

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Shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride are members of a family of ‘self-conscious emotions’ that are evoked by self-reflection and self-evaluation. This self-evaluation may be implicit or explicit, consciously experienced or transpiring beyond our awareness. But either way, the self is the object of self-conscious emotions.

In contrast to ‘basic’ emotions (e.g., anger, fear, joy) which are present very early in life, self-conscious emotions have been described as ‘secondary,’ ‘derived,’ or ‘complex’ emotions because they emerge later and hinge on several cognitive achievements— recognition of the self separate from others and a set of standards against which the self is evaluated. For example, Lewis et al. (1989) showed that the capacity to experience embarrassment coincides with the emergence of self-recognition. Very young children first show behavioral signs of embarrassment during the same developmental phase (15–24 months) in which they show a rudimentary sense of self. Moreover, within this range, children who display self-recognition (in a ‘rouge’ test) are the same children who display signs of embarrassment in an unrelated task.

1. Shame And Guilt

The terms ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ are often used interchangeably. When people do distinguish the two, they typically suggest that shame arises from public exposure and disapproval of a failure or transgression, whereas guilt is more ‘private,’ arising from one’s own conscience. Recent empirical research has failed to support this public/private distinction. For example, Tangney et al. (1996) found that people’s real-life shame and guilt experiences are each most likely to occur in the presence of others. More important, neither the presence of others nor others’ awareness of the respondents’ behavior distinguished between shame and guilt. Overall, there are surprisingly few differences in the types of events that elicit shame and guilt. Shame is somewhat more likely in response to violations of social norms, but most types of events (e.g., lying, cheating, stealing, failing to help another) result in guilt for some people and shame for others.

So what is the difference between shame and guilt? Empirical research supports Helen Block Lewis’s (1971) notion that shame involves a negative evaluation of the global self, whereas guilt involves a negative evaluation of a specific behavior. This differential emphasis on self (‘I did that horrible thing’) vs. behavior (‘I did that horrible thing’) leads to different affective experiences.

Shame is an acutely painful emotion typically accompanied by a sense of shrinking, ‘being small,’ and by a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness. Shamed people also feel exposed. Although shame doesn’t necessarily involve an actual observing audience, there is often the imagery of how one’s defective self would appear to others. Not surprisingly, shame often leads to a desire to escape or hide—to sink into the floor and disappear.

In contrast, guilt is typically less painful and devastating because the primary concern is with a specific behavior, not the entire self. Guilt doesn’t affect one’s core identity. Instead, there is tension, remorse, and regret over the ‘bad thing done’ and a nagging preoccupation with the transgression. Rather than motivating avoidance, guilt typically motivates reparative action.

1.1 Implications Of Shame And Guilt For Interpersonal Adjustment

Research has consistently shown that, on balance, guilt is the more adaptive emotion, benefiting relationships in a variety of ways (Baumeister et al. 1994, Tangney 1995). Three sets of findings illustrate the adaptive, ‘relationship-enhancing functions’ of guilt, in contrast to the hidden costs of shame.

First, shame typically leads to attempts to deny, hide, or escape; guilt typically leads to reparative action—confessing, apologizing, undoing. Thus, guilt orients people in a more constructive, proactive, future-oriented direction, whereas shame orients people toward separation, distance, and defense.

Second, a special link between guilt and empathy has been observed at the levels of both emotion states and dispositions. Studies of children, college students, and adults (Tangney 1995) show that guilt-prone individuals are generally empathic individuals. In contrast, shame-proneness is associated with an impaired capacity for other-oriented empathy and a propensity for ‘self-oriented’ personal distress responses. Similar findings are evident when considering feelings of shame and guilt ‘in the moment.’ Individual differences aside, when people describe personal guilt experiences, they convey greater empathy for others, compared to descriptions of shame experiences. It appears that by focusing on a bad behavior (as opposed to a bad self), people experiencing guilt are relatively free of the egocentric, self-involved focus of shame. Instead, their focus on a specific behavior is likely to highlight the consequences for distressed others.

Third, there is a special link between shame and anger, again observed at both the dispositional and state levels. At all ages, shame-prone individuals are also prone to feelings of anger and hostility (Tangney 1995). Moreover, once angered, they tend to manage their anger in an aggressive, unconstructive fashion. In contrast, guilt is generally associated with constructive means of handling anger. Similar findings have been observed at the situational level, too. In a study of couples’ real-life episodes of anger, shamed partners were significantly more angry, more aggressive, and less likely to elicit conciliatory behavior from the offending partner (Tangney 1995). What accounts for this link between shame and anger? When feeling shame, people initially direct hostility inward (‘I’m such a bad person’). But this hostility may be redirected outward in a defensive attempt to protect the self by shifting the blame elsewhere (‘Oh what a horrible person I am, and damn it, how could you make me feel that way!’).

In sum, studies employing diverse samples, measures and methods converge. All things equal, it’s better if your friend, partner, child, or boss feels guilt than shame. Shame motivates behaviors that interfere with interpersonal relationships. Guilt helps keep people constructively engaged in the relationship at hand.

1.2 Implications Of Shame And Guilt For Psychological Adjustment

Although guilt appears to be the more ‘moral’ or adaptive emotion when considering social adjustment, is there a trade-off vis-a-vis individual psychological adjustment? Does the tendency to experience guilt or shame leave one vulnerable to psychological problems?

Researchers consistently report a relationship between proneness to shame and a whole host of psychological symptoms, including depression, anxiety, eating disorder symptoms, subclinical sociopathy, and low self-esteem (Harder et al. 1992, Tangney et al. 1995). This relationship is robust across measurement methods and diverse populations.

There is more controversy regarding the relationship of guilt to psychopathology. The traditional view is that guilt plays a significant role in psychological symptoms. Clinical theory and case studies make frequent reference to a maladaptive guilt characterized by chronic self-blame and obsessive rumination over one’s transgressions. On the other hand, recent theory and research has emphasized the adaptive functions of guilt, particularly for interpersonal behavior. Tangney et al. (1995) argued that once one makes the critical distinction between shame and guilt, there’s no compelling reason to expect guilt over specific behaviors to be associated with poor psychological adjustment.

The empirical research is similarly mixed. Studies employing adjective checklist-type (and other globally worded) measures find both shame-proneness and guilt-proneness correlated with psychological symptoms. On the other hand, measures sensitive to the self vs. behavior distinction show no relationship between proneness to ‘shame-free’ guilt and psychopathology.

1.3 Development Of Guilt Distinct From Shame

The experience of self-conscious emotions requires the development of standards and a recognized self. In addition, a third ability is required to experience guilt (about specific behaviors) independent of shame (about the self)—the ability to make a clear distinction between self and behavior. Developmental research indicates that children do not begin making meaningful distinctions between attributions to ability (enduring characteristics) vs. attributions to effort (more unstable, volitional factors) until about age eight—the same age at which researchers find interpretable differences in children’s descriptions of shame and guilt experiences (Ferguson et al. 1991).

2. Embarrassment

Miller (1996) defines embarrassment as ‘an aversive state of mortification, abashment, and chagrin that follows public social predicaments’ (p. 322). Indeed, embarrassment appears to be the most ‘social’ of the self-conscious emotions, occurring almost without exception in the company of others.

2.1 Causes Of Embarrassment

In Miller’s (1996) catalog of embarrassing events described by several hundred adolescents and adults, ‘normative public deficiencies’ (tripping in front of a large class, forgetting someone’s name, unintended bodily induced noises) were at the top of the list. But there were many other types of embarrassment situations—awkward social interactions, conspicuousness in the absence of any deficiency, ‘team transgressions’ (embarrassed by a member of one’s group), and ‘empathic’ embarrassment.

The diversity of situations that lead to embarrassment has posed a challenge to efforts at constructing a comprehensive ‘account’ of embarrassment. Some theorists believe that the crux of embarrassment is negative evaluation by others (Edelmann 1981, Miller 1996). This social evaluation account runs into difficulty with embarrassment events that involve no apparent deficiency (e.g., being the center of attention during a ‘Happy Birthday’ chorus). Other theorists subscribe to the ‘dramaturgic’ account, positing that embarrassment occurs when implicit social roles and scripts are disrupted. A flubbed performance, an unanticipated belch, and being the focus of ‘Happy Birthday’ each represent a deviation from accustomed social scripts.

Lewis (1992) distinguished between two types of embarrassment—embarrassment due to exposure and embarrassment due to negative self-evaluation. According to Lewis (1992), embarrassment due to exposure emerges early in life, once children develop a rudimentary sense of self. When children develop standards, rules and goals (SRGs), a second type of embarrassment emerges—‘embarrassment as mild shame’ associated with failure in relation to SRGs.

2.2 Functions Of Embarrassment

Although there is debate about the fundamental causes of embarrassment, there is general agreement about its adaptive significance. Gilbert (1997) suggests that embarrassment serves an important social function by signaling appeasement to others. When untoward behavior threatens a person’s standing in an important social group, visible signs of embarrassment function as a nonverbal acknowledgment of shared social standards, thus diffusing negative evaluations and the likelihood of retaliation. Evidence from studies of both humans and nonhuman primates supports this remedial function of embarrassment (Keltner and Buswell 1997).

2.3 Embarrassment And Shame

Is there a difference between shame and embarrassment? Some theorists essentially equate the two emotions. A more dominant view is that shame and embarrassment differ in intensity of affect and/or severity of transgression. Still others propose that shame is tied to perceived deficiencies of one’s core self, whereas embarrassment results from deficiencies in one’s presented self.

Recent research suggests that shame and embarrassment are indeed quite different emotions—more distinct, even, than shame and guilt. For example, comparing adults’ personal shame, guilt, and embarrassment experiences, Tangney et al. (1996) found that shame was a more intense, painful emotion that involved a greater sense of moral transgression. But controlling for intensity and morality, shame and embarrassment still differed markedly along many affective, cognitive, and motivational dimensions. When shamed, people felt greater responsibility, regret, and self-directed anger. Embarrassment was marked by more humor, blushing, and a greater sense of exposure.

2.4 Individual Differences In Embarrassability

As with shame and guilt, people vary in their propensity to experience embarrassment. These individual differences are evident within the first years of life, and are relatively stable across time. Research has shown that embarrassability is associated with neuroticism, high levels of negative affect, self-consciousness, and a fear of negative evaluation from others. Miller (1996) has shown that this fear of negative evaluation is not due to poor social skills, but rather a heightened concern for social rules and standards.

3. Pride

Of the self-conscious emotions, pride has received the least attention. Most research comes from developmental psychology, particularly in the achievement domain.

3.1 Developmental Issues

There appear to be substantial developmental shifts in the types of situations that induce pride, the nature of the pride experience itself, and the ways in which pride is expressed. For example, Stipek et al. (1992) observed developmental changes in the criteria children use for evaluating success and failure—and in the types of situation that lead to pride. Children under 33 months respond positively to task-intrinsic criteria (e.g., completing a tower of blocks), but they do not seem to grasp the concept of competition (e.g., winning or losing a race to complete a tower of blocks). It is only after 33 months that children show enhanced pride in response to a competitive win.

There are also developmental shifts in the importance of praise from others. Stipek et al. (1992) reported that all children 13–39 months smiled and exhibited pleasure with their successes. But there were age differences in social referencing. As children neared two years of age, they began to seek eye contact with parents upon completing a task, often actively soliciting parental recognition, which in turn enhanced children’s pleasure with achievements. Stipek et al. (1992) suggests that the importance of external praise may be curvilinear across the lifespan. Very young children take pleasure in simply having immediate effect on their environment; as they develop self-consciousness (at about two), others’ reactions shape their emotional response to success and failure. Still later, as standards become increasingly internalized, pride becomes again more autonomous, less contingent on others’ praise and approval.

3.2 Two Types Of Pride?

Both Tangney (1990) and Lewis (1992) have suggested that there are two types of pride. Paralleling the self vs. behavior distinction of guilt and shame, Tangney (1990) distinguished between pride in self (‘alpha’ pride) and pride in behavior (‘beta’ pride). Similarly, Lewis (1992) distinguished between pride (arising from attributing one’s success to a specific action) and hubris (pridefulness arising from attributions of success to the global self). Lewis (1992) views hubris as largely maladaptive, noting that hubristic individuals are inclined to distort and invent situations to enhance the self, which can lead to interpersonal problems.

4. Future Research

Future research will no doubt focus on biological and social factors that shape individual differences in self-conscious emotions. In addition, we need to know more about the conditions under which guilt, shame, pride, and embarrassment are most likely to be adaptive vs. maladaptive. Finally, more cross-cultural research is needed. Kitayama et al. (1995) make the compelling argument that, owing to cultural differences in the construction of the self, self-conscious emotions may be especially culturally sensitive.


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