Want to Quantify the Feeling of Shame? What’s the ‘Logic’?

Surely everyone knows what it’s like to feel shame — that acute warm flush that tingles under the skin of the face, the cringing feeling, the replay of the flinch-inducing scene later in our imaginations. While this distressing emotion is common, the intensity of it, as well as the specific instigator, often varies depending on the culture.

Clinical psychologist Rhiannon Thomas and four colleagues conducted a study of shame in Australia and Japan, building on and expanding distinctions made by the evolutionary anthropologist Daniel Fessler. Fessler had previously differentiated between two types of logic related to shame: 1) shame related to a sense of your own inferior status, typified by feelings of lowness; and 2) shame deriving from a failure to conform to social norms, characterized by feeling that you’ve done something wrong.

However, Thomas and her colleagues considered a potential third type of shame logic related to feeling like your vision of who you are was flawed. As examples, they described situations like finding out that someone you consider a good friend thinks of you as just an acquaintance, or being on the verge of accepting a compliment and then realizing that the person was not speaking to you.

While these scenarios relate to lowness or misconduct to some degree, Thomas and her colleagues argue that the feeling of shame is concerned with losing your self-image — what they rather poignantly call “shattered self-assumptions” — rather than being lower than others or not behaving according to a given standard. The researchers further hypothesized that this third type of shame, as well as the low-status type of shame, would be more prevalent in Japan than Australia, while norm non-conformity would be more frequent in Australia. They also predicted that the intensity of the feeling of shame would be higher among Japanese than Australians.

To test their hypotheses, they created a 21-item Self-Conscious Emotion Questionnaire, with six scenarios related to each of the three types of shame. Three non-shame scenarios related to hurt, guilt or anger were also added. The scenarios were further classified in terms of whether the shaming-inducing incident was seen from the eyes of some other person (EO) or the eyes of the self (ES), whether the shameful behavior was performed by the actual person (BS) or by someone else (BO), and whether it was implicitly inferred or made explicit, for example, through a comment.

For example, someone saying to you that you talk too loudly would be shame related to norm non-conformity, from the eyes of others, the shameful behavior performed by the actual person and explicitly referred to (SL2, EO, BS, Exp). Being the only one to know that a family member has become homeless would be low-status shame, from the eyes of the self, related to the behavior of another and implicit (SL1, ES, BO, Imp).

Eighty-two Australian university students and 75 Japanese students completed the questionnaire. The respondents were asked to read each scenario and indicate on a scale of 0 to 4 how much they would feel each of the following emotions: shame, embarrassment, guilt, hurt, self-directed anger or outwardly directed anger.

In general, the Japanese students recorded more intensity of emotion, and the intensity recorded for feelings of shame was almost twice that of their Australian counterparts. Tallying the average emotion ratings for all items of the questionnaire, for the Japanese respondents the strongest declared emotion was shame, with a score of 40.5, followed by embarrassment, with an average of 38.5. On the other hand, the most intense emotion across the board for the Australians was embarrassment, with a mean score of 30.8. Externally directed anger was second (average 25.3) and then shame (average 23.3).

Thomas and her colleagues then tallied the average scores for shame and embarrassment based on the three types of logic for each country. For the Japanese respondents, norm non-conformity was the highest type of shame recorded, with an average score of 15.9. The flawed self-image type had a mean score of 13.3 and the sense of inferior status garnered a score of 11.3 on average. The Australians had much lower scores for all types of shame. The highest was also norm non-conformity, with a mean score of 10.4. Inferior status and flawed self-image were 6.7 and 6.2, respectively.

Regarding embarrassment as well, norm non-conformity was highest for both groups, with an average score for the Japanese of 14.3 and the Australians of 12.4. This was followed for both by flawed self-image, with respective mean scores of 12.9 and 9.8, and then inferior status, with a score of 11.2 for the Japanese and 8.6 for the Australians.

The researchers further found statistically significant differences in the shame scores depending on whether the incident was seen from the eyes of some other person or from the person’s own perspective. The Japanese respondents were more likely to feel shame when the incident was viewed from their own perspective, while the reverse was true for the Australians.

Additionally, they found that the Japanese were much more likely to record a sense of shame for situations of explicit mention, whereas the Australians were more likely to endorse a feeling of shame in implicit situations. Both groups felt more embarrassment in their own behavior than the behavior of others, but this was a stronger tendency for the Australians. Additionally, both groups also felt more embarrassment in implicit situations, but this sense was stronger for the Japanese.

I tried the questionnaire myself, and just imagining the various scenarios made me feel pangs of distress. On initial reflection, my hope was that the next time I am involved in one of these types of situations, the mental exercise of categorizing the episode and rating the intensity of my emotion might take away some part of the anguish. But then I felt a bit of shame in realizing that my first impulse was to think of how it could benefit me instead of resolving to do my part to avoid causing others undue suffering (SL3, ES, BS, Exp). Shameful!