Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


True Crime

shame1

(Photo: Public Domain)

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.

More From Ryan Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.