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We all know something about guilt and shame, and different disciplines have their own pet theories. Now a Stanford expert offers a 360-degree outlook on these universal emotions.


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Mention Herant Katchadourian's name and many alums will think of his popular courses on human sexuality. In recent years, the emeritus professor of psychiatry and human biology has delved into another aspect of the human condition, resulting in a book called Guilt: The Bite of Conscience (Stanford University Press, 2009), excerpted here.

Guilt, shame and embarrassment are forms of social control. Whether these are cast in evolutionary, psychological, or cultural terms, we should not lose sight of that basic function. These emotions may not always be portrayed in these terms, but that is how they have evolved and become embedded in our cultural beliefs and practices. It is in this context that we should raise the question: Are there shame cultures as opposed to guilt cultures, with corresponding differences in how people within them experience guilt and shame?

In American culture (and Western cultures generally), personal identity is conceived of as being independent and autonomous. Society is seen as a collection of self-contained individuals who are held responsible for their own behavior. One's interests are best served by allowing maximum freedom and responsibility in choosing one's objectives. Moral precepts are based on conceptions of justice. Even when these are tempered by interpersonal obligations, the focus remains on individuals who must balance their responsibilities between the self and significant others.

The primary moral obligation is to avoid harming significant others. It is when you cause harm, or are unjust, that you feel guilty. Being responsive to the needs of others is desirable, but is not a moral duty. Individuals are free to follow their inclinations within the limits of the law and in consideration of the rights of others. Their obligations to others are defined in negative terms—what they should not do—rather than as positive duties of what they should do. Whereas the failure to uphold justice is a vice, the failure to be beneficent to others is only a lack of moral virtue.

By contrast, in Asian contexts, one's identity is defined in relation to the group one belongs to, typically the family. Whereas in the West, a person would be known as Jane or John Doe, in the East, they would be identified as members of the Doe family. In her study of Indian Hindus, psychologist Joan Miller found that the primary basis of determining moral conduct was not justice but a person's duties to significant others. Among Americans, moral duty is imposed on the individual to constrain that individual's actions. For Hindus, doing one's duty meant both meeting one's obligations as well as realizing one's own nature. Therefore acting benevolently toward others was not an aim secondary to considerations of justice, nor was it a matter of acting above and beyond the call of duty—fulfilling one's social duty was the primary purpose of moral conduct.

These differences lead to contrasting ways of determining what is moral. For instance, if there is no other way to help a friend in need, it would be ethical for an Indian to steal but unethical for an American to do so even if it means failing to help the friend. These differences are not absolute; nonetheless, twice as many Indians as Americans would give priority to interpersonal considerations over abstract ethical principles. Moreover, Indians were more prone than Americans to make contextual exceptions (where the morality of an action depends on the nature of the relationship and the circumstances of the case), whereas Americans took a more absolute view about an action being right or wrong, irrespective of other considerations. The moral objective in the West, as noted above, is to avoid doing wrong and is more objective; in the East, it is to do what is right and is more subjective.

Similar considerations apply in other Asian cultures. In China, the family is the "great self." One starts by literally owing one's life to one's parents. One's primary obligation in life is to serve and protect social ties, not pursue personal goals. Similarly, while Americans place a high premium on self-reliance, the Japanese favor interdependence and harmonious integration within the group. Individuals in both groups are highly competitive, but in different ways. Americans want to get ahead of others; the Japanese are concerned with not falling behind; instead of pushing ahead, they line up sideways. The personal boundaries of Americans have been compared to the hard shell of an egg; those of the Japanese, to an egg's soft internal membrane.

This individualistic-versus-interdependent basis of moral judgment helps clarify the problematic distinctions between shame and guilt cultures. Instead of these designations explaining differences in such a way that makes one culture seem morally superior to another, they explain cultural differences as the outcome of serving different needs. In the Western context of individualism, guilt, with its emphasis on autonomy, provides a better moral foundation for guiding individuals who are responsible for themselves. With a lesser sense of responsibility for others, there is less need for shame as a form of social control.

By contrast, in the Asian cultural context, where maintaining harmony in relationships is most valued, shame is a more effective means of moral control. Since personal boundaries extend beyond the individual, it becomes more difficult to generate guilt. When someone does wrong, it is not only the person but everyone related to that person who shares in the guilt. Therefore, shame in Asian cultures fulfills some of the same functions of social control that guilt does in the West and vice versa.

These considerations are important to our understanding of differences in the ways guilt and shame are perceived in Western and Eastern religion. . . . For instance, the centrality of shame in Confucianism has led to the general impression that Confucian China is a shame society, and hence is ethically less developed. [Religion scholar] Mark Berkson [MA '92, PhD '00] has raised cogent arguments that this characterization is not valid. Confucian ethics, far from being ethically less well developed, offers much to others to learn from. While generally framed in East/West terms, these differences between guilt and shame can also be seen within Western culture itself in historical perspective. Homeric heroes in ancient Greece were driven by the twin virtues honor and fame. In their warlike society such virtues were best manifested on the battlefield. The self-esteem of heroes like Achilles, Odysseus, and Oedipus depended on their standing in the eyes of their peers, with whom they were in fierce competition and often conflict. Failure led to loss of face and shame. Consequently, shame has been generally assumed to be the predominant moral sentiment that motivated and restrained the ancient Greeks. Their shame culture was based on public esteem. What mattered was where one stood with respect to one's peers, who constituted an honor-group. This view has been challenged by moral philosopher Bernard Williams, who argues that Greek conceptions of shame also included elements of guilt.

These cultural differences are embedded in various languages as well. This makes translating terms like guilt and shame a common source of confusion. For example, when we look for synonyms for shame and guilt in Chinese, we do not find single terms that correspond to them. Rather, we find a number of terms that correspond to various types of shame, making distinctions that do not exist in English. In some contexts, even guilt may appear as a subsidiary form of shame.

Even if the terms to designate them vary, are these emotions universal or culture specific? Do an American and an Indian experience guilt and shame the same way, whatever they call them? There are no simple answers to this question. Some emotions appear to be more universal than others; for instance, it is hard to imagine a culture that does not recognize expressions of fear or anger. However, when it comes to complex emotions like guilt and shame, which are more subject to cultural variation, the picture becomes less clear. Even the fact that a culture has no word for an emotion does not mean that the emotion it represents is absent.

Linguists point out that even if certain emotions are universal, their terminology is not. For instance, there is no word for "disgust" in Polish. And in one Australian aboriginal language, "fear" and "shame" are expressed by the same word (associated with the impulse to retreat). The common error is to start with one's own language and look for exact translations in other languages.

Ultimately, it is not through specific terms like "guilt" or "shame" but through metalanguage—descriptions of the essential elements in emotional states— that we can test the universality of the emotions. For instance, the answer to "How do you feel when you have lost someone dear to you?" would convey the idea of sadness better than would the answer to the question "Do you feel sad?"

How does the evolutionary view help us in dealing with guilt? This is not a matter explicitly addressed by evolutionary psychologists. . . . Nonetheless, the evolutionary basis of the capacity for altruism and the capacity to feel guilty provides us with a natural foundation for guilt, and hence the need for its acceptance and usefulness. If guilt is indeed part of our nature, and there are good reasons for it, it makes no sense to fight it or deny it. Accepting guilt as a fact of life therefore makes it easier to approach it in a positive manner, and perhaps helps us to resolve it in more authentic and adaptive ways.

HERANT KATCHADOURIAN, who came to Stanford in 1966, is an emeritus professor of psychiatry and human biology and former president of the Flora Family Foundation. He has received the Dinkelspiel and Lyman awards and has been selected seven times as Outstanding Professor and Class Day speaker.

Stanford alumni can receive a 30 percent discount on Guilt: The Bite of Conscience (Stanford University Press) by ordering a copy and using the premium code Guilt09.

Professor Katchadourian will speak about guilt in McCaw Hall, Arrillaga Alumni Center, on December 7 at 4:30 p.m. A brief reception will follow.

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