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Guilt and shame

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Most of us probably go through Life without sparing a thought to emotions such as guilt and shame, and their impact on inidividual and collective behaviors within a society. Thankfully, some others make it their business to do just this.

Is Shame necessary? In an excellent essay, Jennifer Jacquet takes on this question.

The context is set with references to the excesses of the financial industry in recent times. Were the bankers shameful of their behavior? But what are guilt and shame? Jacquet’s operational definition “…..Whereas guilt is evoked by an individual’s standards, shame is the result of group standards. Therefore, shame, unlike guilt, is felt only in the context of other people.” In other words, guilt is accountability to the self (your conscience being the judge) but where shame is concerned you are answerable to a group (punishment in former societies was the purview of your peers and more effective. In most current societies that function is offloaded to the various agents of justice. Jacquet argues that this evolution has diluted the effectiveness of shame).

When you mix these mostly ineffective emotional levers with the “tragedy of the commons : individual acts are at odds with the collective good” ,what you get is a range of social dilemmas including over-fishing, energy over use, and  excessive water consumption. Much of Jacquet’s essay explores these issues contrasting human behavior with examples from nature where cooperative behavior is a win-win for everyone involved.

As I read this essay, I felt the topics discussed were also related to another well documented phenomenon of human behavior : diffusion of responsiblity (from Wikipedia – Diffusion of responsibility is a social phenomenon which tends to occur in groups of people above a certain critical size when responsibility is not explicitly assigned). The connection is, diffusion of responsibility in social acts may tend to counter the  restraining influence of guilt and/or shame. Hmm….

This essay is definitely worth your time.


Written by asterix98

September 4, 2011 at 3:22 am

Posted in guilt and shame

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