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Can Shame Predict Whether a Released Felon Will Reoffend?

• February 12, 2014 • 2:00 AM

(Photo: Public Domain)

A new longitudinal study of incarcerated felons produces a nuanced answer.

The linguistic distinction between guilt and shame is often blurred. Some of the definitions that Merriam-Webster offers are nearly identical. Guilt is “a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong,” while shame is “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.”

In their unending preoccupation with darkness, psychological researchers prefer to parse the details. “Shame and guilt are both self-conscious emotions that arise from self-relevant failures and transgressions, but they differ in their object of evaluation,” a new paper in Psychological Science declares. “Feelings of shame involve a painful focus on the self—’I am a bad person’—whereas feelings of guilt involve a focus on a specific behavior—’I did a bad thing.'”

With excessive sentencing, extreme isolation, and little in the way of structured re-entry programs, inmates are practically invited to blame the system and believe that the forces of society have conspired against them.

Previous work has indicated that feelings of guilt over a specific misbehavior produce a cocktail of uncomfortable emotions (tension and regret, for instance) that can often lead to reform or even an effort to fix the lapse in question. But potent shame, on the other hand, can sometimes overpower and warp your sense of self. That, predictably, doesn’t do wonders for rehabilitation. “Rather than motivating reparative action, the acutely painful shame experience often motivates a defensive response,” the researchers write. “When shamed, people want to escape, hide, deny responsibility, and blame other people. In fact, proneness to shame about the self has been repeatedly associated with a tendency to blame other people for one’s failures and shortcomings.” 

Examining how experiences of guilt and shame might affect future behavior can be particularly crucial for the design of a criminal justice system, which often traffics in and even misuses these emotions. But until now, studies on the emotions have recruited samples and used methodologies with little explanatory potential for recidivism in the criminal underworld. The privileged undergraduate demographic from an expensive research university doesn’t exactly mirror the prison population, and the “cross-sectional” approach of connecting present feelings “to retrospective reports of past misdeeds and failures” isn’t particularly useful for real-world application. 

To work against these limitations, the latest study recruited hundreds of recently incarcerated inmates at a county jail outside Washington, D.C., and surveyed them on measures of shame, guilt, and “externalization of blame.” Then, the researchers followed up with 332 of the subjects by phone or in person a year after their release, interviewed them about arrests and crimes, and pulled their formal records for comparison.

After an extensive analysis, the researchers found that those who expressed a propensity for guilt were less likely to reoffend. The team had predicted this: “In theory, guilt should be more effective than shame in fostering constructive changes in future behavior because the issue is not a bad, defective self but a bad, defective behavior,” they write. “It is generally easier to change an objectionable behavior than to change an objectionable self.”

But the effects of shame were not as clear-cut as expected. Though more shame correlated with increased “recidivism via its relation to externalization of blame” (an indirect effect), shame also produced a modest decrease in recidivism when it was isolated from the coping mechanism. The authors write:

The propensity to experience shame is in some ways a liability, and in other ways, it is a potential strength. On the one hand, shame proneness is a liability in the sense that it prompts people to blame other people rather than taking responsibility for their failures and transgressions, and this externalization of blame is a risk factor for recidivism. By failing to take responsibility and blaming others, ex-offenders are apt to continue doing the same thing—in this case, commit crime. On the other hand, shame had a direct negative effect on recidivism. Therefore, another, more-adaptive process is also at play.

Follow-up analyses indicated that it was primarily the motivation to hide associated with shame, not global negative self-appraisals, per se, that accounted for these two distinct pathways. In theory, the cognitive-affective experience of shame (negative self-appraisals) motivates the action tendency to hide or avoid….

Further research is needed to clarify the mechanism (or mechanisms) by which behavioral avoidance directly inhibits recidivism. It may be that after release, shame-prone ex-offenders are inclined to withdraw from other people—both prosocial and antisocial peers—which may reduce the likelihood of reoffense. Another possibility is that, relative to their less shame-prone peers, shame-prone ex-offenders withdraw, use the downtime to rethink, and in doing so, better anticipate shame at the thought of future involvement in the criminal-justice system, which in turn inhibits reoffense.

Shame, then, can have differing effects based on the extent to which someone engages in blame transference in an attempt to cope with the intense self-doubt of it. This research suggests that any intelligently designed rehabilitation program should actively discourage this type of defensiveness. Goal-oriented prisons in places like Germany and the Netherlands allow energies to be funneled elsewhere, toward constructive work and away from the blame-game. Unfortunately, the retribution-oriented American criminal justice system does almost the exact opposite. With excessive sentencing, extreme isolation, and little in the way of structured re-entry programs, inmates are practically invited to blame the system and believe that the forces of society have conspired against them. Naturally, recidivism follows.

Once released and faced with lower economic prospects and no voting rights, U.S. ex-convicts are treated to the same sense of shame and worthlessness they encountered in prison. Full of blame, that’s probably where they’ll return.

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

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