Sometimes people assess their actions in ways that do not conform to the evaluation that others might give them
Succeeding or failing to meet the standards, rules, and goals of one’s group or society determines how well an individual forms relationships with other members of the group. Living up to one’s own internalized set of standards—or failing to live up to them—is the basis of complex emotions. The so-called self-conscious emotions, such as guilt, pride, shame, and hubris, require a fairly sophisticated level of intellectual development. To feel them, individuals must have a sense of self as well as a set of standards. They must also have notions of what constitutes success and failure, and the capacity to evaluate their own behavior.
Self-conscious emotions are difficult to study. For one thing, there are no clear elicitors of these emotions. Joy registers predictably on a person’s face at the approach of a friend, and caution appears at the approach of a stranger. But what situation is guaranteed to elicit pride or shame, guilt or embarrassment? These emotions are so dependent on a person’s own experience, expectations, and culture, that it is difficult to design uniform experiments. Some psychoanalysts argued that there must be some universal elicitors of shame, such as failure at toilet training or exposure of the backside. But the idea of an automatic non cognitive elicitor does not make much sense. Cognitive processes are likely to be the elicitors of these complex emotions. It is the way people think or what they think about that becomes the elicitor of pride, shame, guilt, or embarrassment. There may be a one-to-one correspondence between certain thoughts and certain emotions; however, in the case of self-conscious emotions, the elicitor is a cognitive event. This does not mean that the earlier primary emotions are elicited by non cognitive events.
Cognitive factors may play a role in eliciting any emotion, but the nature of the cognitive events is much less articulated and differentiated in the primary than in the self-conscious emotions. Those who study self-conscious emotions have begun to determine the role of the self in such emotions, and in particular the age at which the notion of self emerges in childhood. Recently, models of these emotions are beginning to emerge. These models provide testable distinctions between often-confused emotions, such as guilt and shame.
Moreover, nonverbal tools for studying these emotions in children are being developed. As a result, models exist to explain when and how self-conscious emotions develop. The self-conscious emotions depend on the development of a number of cognitive skills. First, individuals must absorb a set of standards, rules, and goals. Second, they must have a sense of self. And finally, they must be able to evaluate the self with regard to those standards, rules, and goals and then make a determination of success or failure.
As a first step in self-evaluation, a person has to decide whether a particular event is the result of his or her own action. If, for example, an object breaks while you are using it, you might blame yourself for breaking it, or you might decide the object was faulty. If you place the blame on yourself, you are making an internal attribution. If you decide the object was defective, then you are making an external attribution. If you don’t blame yourself, chances are you will give the matter no more thought. But if you do blame yourself, you are likely to go on to the next step of evaluation. Whether a person is inclined to make an internal or an external attribution depends on the situation and on the individual’s own characteristics.
Some people are likely to blame themselves no matter what happens. Psychologists still do not entirely understand how people decide what constitutes success and failure after they have assumed responsibility for an event. This aspect of self-evaluation is particularly important because the same standards, rules, and goals can result in radically different feelings, depending on whether success or failure is attributed to oneself. Sometimes people assess their actions in ways that do not conform to the evaluation that others might give them. Many factors are involved in producing inaccurate or unique evaluations.
These include early failures in the self system, leading to narcissistic disorders, harsh socialization experiences, and high levels of reward for success or punishment for failure. The evaluation of one’s own behavior in terms of success and failure plays a very important role in shaping an individual’s goals and new plans. In a final evaluation step, an individual determines whether success or failure is global or specific. Global attributions come about when a person is inclined to focus on the total self. Some individuals, some of the time, attribute the success or failure of a particular action to the total self: they use such self-evaluative phrases as “I am bad (or good).” On such occasions, the focus is not on the behavior, but on the self, both as object and as subject. Using such global attribution results in thinking of nothing else but the self. During these times, especially when the global evaluation is negative, a person becomes confused and speechless. The individual is unable to act and is driven away from action, wanting to hide or disappear.
In some situations, individuals make specific attributions focusing on specific actions. Thus, it is not the total self that has done something wrong or good; instead, a particular behavior is judged. At such times, individuals will use such evaluative phrases as, “What I did was wrong, and I must not do it again.” Notice that the individual’s focus here is not on the totality of the self, but on the specific behavior of the self in a specific situation.
The tendency to make global or specific attributions may be a personality style. Global attributions for negative events are generally uncorrelated with global attributions for positive events. It is only when positive or negative events are taken into account that relatively stable and consistent attributional patterns are observed. Some individuals are likely to be stable in their global and specific evaluations under most conditions of success or failure. Such factors are thought to have important consequences for a variety of fixed personality patterns. One of the most important human emotions is considered to be shame or guilt. An important determinant of whether shame or guilt follows failure to live up to a standard is whether a person believes he could have avoided the violating act. If not, shame is likely. If the person feels he could have done otherwise, guilt is likely to occur. Shame or guilt occurs when an individual judges his or her actions as a failure in regard to his or her standards, rules, and goals and then makes a global attribution. The person wishes to hide, disappear, or die. It is a highly negative and painful state that also disrupts ongoing behavior and causes confusion in thought and an inability to speak. The body of the shamed person seems to shrink, as if to disappear from the eye of the self or others. Because of the intensity of this emotional state, and the global attack on the self system, all that individuals can do when presented with such a state is to attempt to rid themselves of it. Its global nature, however, makes it very difficult to dissipate.
The power of shame drives people to employ strategies to rid themselves of this feeling. These strategies may generate behavior that is generally considered abnormal. Some people readjust their notions of success and failure, at least as they apply to their own actions. The narcissistic personality, for example, perceives its actions to be successful while others perceive them as failure. The narcissist is characterized by an exaggerated sense of his or her own accomplishments and is likely to appear hubristic. But underlying the bombast is an attempt to avoid the exaggerated shame the narcissist may really feel. In contrast to the narcissist, a depressed person may be acutely aware of shame and feel helpless, hopeless, and worthless.
Shame and guilt are not produced by any specific situation, but rather by an individual’s interpretation of an event. Even more important is the observation that shame is not necessarily related to whether the event is public or private. Although many theorists hold that shame is a public failure, this need not be so. Failure attributed to the self can be public or private, and can center round moral as well as social action. Guilt is produced when an individual evaluates his or her behavior as a failure, but focuses on the specific features of the self that led to the failure. A guilty person is likely to feel responsible and try to repair the failure. Guilty individuals are pained by their evaluation of failure. Guilt is often associated with a corrective action that the individual can take (but does not necessarily take) to repair the failure and prevent it from happening again. In guilt, the self is differentiated from the object.