Shame vs Embarrassment: The Distinction In The Literature

I examine Zahavi’s paper on Shame [D Zahavi, Shame and the Exposed Self, in J Webber (ed.), Reading Sartre: On Phenomenology and Existentialism, London: Routledge, 2010] which deals with shame as discussed in the literature. Zahavi comments on analysis by Lewis, Scheler, Taylor, Harre and Mead. [Citations to follow at the appropriate point in the text.]

A principal difficulty throughout is that of distinguishing shame from embarrassment. I will show that none of the commentators discussed by Zahavi or Zahavi himself have adequate proposals to do this.

Scheler

Scheler [M Scheler, Schriften aus dem Nachlass, Band I: Zur Ethik und Erkenntnislehre, Muenchen: Francke Verlag, 1957. (Originally published 1913.)] claims that blushing virgins have `protective shame’. This presumably means that on the assumption that chastity is a virtue, the shame the virgins experience when the topic of copulation is in some way brought to their attention will be of assistance in maintaining that chastity. This function would be fulfilled as well by `protective embarrassment’ and so this claim does not provide a distinguishing test.

Zahavi reports the claim made by Scheler that shame is a precondition for erotic interest in others. This could valorize it since it would be necessary for the survival of the species. Such a valorization could provide a distinction between shame and embarrassment because embarrassment either does not have value or would have a different mechanism for valorization. The mechanism proposed by Scheler for shame is that the shame associated with auto-eroticism leads the sexual impulses to turn outwards.

But we would need to have assigned a value to such survival for the link to convey any value to shame. To some extent, erotic impulses form part of the factors leading population to increase — after all, evolution has `designed’ those impulses to precisely that end. To the further extent that problems like global warming are exacerbated by population growth, then we would have further reason to assign a negative value to shame if the link claimed by Scheler holds. Any attempt to add positive value also brings with it negative value. This complexity combined with the absence of a valorization scheme for embarrassment makes it unlikely that we can find a clean distinction between shame and embarrassment from this source.

Taylor

Taylor argues for a duration-based distinction between shame and embarrassment. She holds that embarrassment persists only as long as the embarrassing situation; while shame is held to persist beyond shameful events. But there seems to be no obvious reason why a memory of an episode provoking an emotion of embarrassment or shame would not provoke embarrassment or shame again on being recalled. Indeed, the ability to recall the emotion which was a fundamental aspect of the phenomenology of the event, is constitutive of having adequately recalled the event at all. The recalled emotion could potentially be in an attenuated form, but that would suffice to defeat Taylor’s claim.

Also, Taylor will have difficulties explaining why I can intelligibly make statements such as `I am embarrassed that I used to like such terrible music in college’, because there is a significant lapse of time between the state of affairs causing the embarrassment and the embarrassment itself. Her response will presumably involve the claim that the `embarrassing situation’ in this case is not the long-past enjoyment of now unfashionable music, but my current realization that in fact that music was not of the highest quality. But why is that embarrassing? Does it not on the contrary represent an admirable and not embarrassing improvement in my taste?

In addition, psychological research by Modigliani [A Modigliani, Embarrassment and Embarrassability, Sociometry, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Sep., 1968), pp. 313-326] shows that some people are more prone to embarrassment than others, and that this proneness is related to feelings of inadequacy. We know that feelings of inadequacy, or low self-esteem problems, are relatively stable since otherwise, people would not seek counseling to address these problems. This means that embarrassability must also be a stable parameter. And if that is so, then Taylor will need to explain how it is possible for some people to be more embarrassable than others when embarrassment does not persist beyond the embarrassing episode. Can it be because highly embarrassable people experience more embarrassing episodes? Or that they experience a higher intensity of embarrassment for some base-line level of embarrassment stimulus?

Zahavi gives five examples purportedly of shame: being exposed as a plagiarist, one’s friend observing the racism of one’s relative, wearing unfashionable clothes, being rejected for a job one expected to receive, not wearing make-up. This illustrates the prevailing predicament in that all of these could equally well be described as embarrassment and we would have no difficulty accepting a spread between the two emotions, if indeed two they be.

One cannot be ashamed of events for which one is not responsible. The racism example looks like it could be a counter-example to this. It is clear that no-one can take a great deal of responsibility for the political views of relations. But it might be the case that the shame derives from a failure to prevent the event from taking place. Left unspoken in Zahavi’s example is the possibility that the friend with one is in fact a member of an ethnic minority, and was the target of the racism. There, one would certainly feel responsible for having allowed the situation to take place.

Zahavi also claims that it is implausible that any of these scenarios could have happened when alone — but does that commit him also to saying there cannot be shameful memories? He may have a counter to the extent that one could feel shame on recalling a shameful memory not in virtue of that recall but in virtue of the recalled possibility of further exposure of the remembered episode in the future to other observers. We then have to decide to what extent we are `alone’ with our memories — would someone irrevocably marooned alone on a desert island have shameful memories? Zahavi has to say no, but if we imagine that our castaway has in fact been exiled for heinous crimes of which he now repents, Zahavi’s position appears dramatically implausible. So Zahavi’s various claims on shame are questionable and do not provide a distinction between shame and embarrassment.

Harre

Zahavi discusses Harre’s claim [R Harr\’e, Embarrassment: A conceptual Analysis, in W Crozier (ed.) Shyness and Embarrassment: Perspectives from social psychology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990] that the distinction between shame and embarrassment is that in the former case, others see our moral breach while in the latter case, others see our breach of convention. Zahavi criticizes this for being too neat: it has too clean a division between moral and conventional infractions. This crticism has force, not least because the purported distinction assumes that morality and convention are separate. Against that, many philosophers argue that in fact morality is merely conventional. A plethora of citations could be given to illustrate this: I will restrict myself to Sedgwick’s [P Sedgwick, Nietzsche: the key concepts, Abingdon: Routledge, 2009, p. 100] observation on Nietzsche: `[t]he claim that morality was, in the first place, simply obedience to customs and no more is fruitful’.

Zahavi proposes an alternative distinction: shame is unlike embarrassment in that only the former is accompanied by a decrease in self-esteem. But embarrassment is undoubtedly not a positive emotion. If we contemplate a case of extreme, overwhelming, all-encompassing embarrassment, is it likely that it would have no negative effect on our view of ourselves? Would we not think the mere liability to feel such an emotion to such a paralyzing extent reflected badly on ourselves, not least because we might be prevented from acting in productive ways by our feelings? In any case, Zahavi is here making a false empirical claim. Modigliani relates susceptibility to embarrassment to inadequacy, describing how `the individual may suffer the relatively severe loss of situational-self-esteem associated with embarrassment by failing to manifest situationally appropriate demeanor’. Situational-self-esteem is that element of self-esteem that derives from behaving appropriately; we are all aware of the perverse tendency to giggle at funerals.

However, Modigliani allows that the effect may be transient; the embarrassed individual `is likely to find that his general self-esteem has been little affected by the experience’, [ibid., p. 315] but Zahavi still has questions to answer. These questions are made only more pointed by the examples of embarrassing situations given by Modigliani: `e.g. a slip of the tongue, a revelation of negative self-information by others, an inability to carry off situationally relevant tasks’ [ibid., p. 316], as all of these are clearly embarrassment and not shame and all of them will indubitably cause a decrease in self-esteem. How could they not? They are failings. The objection that Modigliani has himself confused shame and embarrassment is scarcely available to those arguing that the self-esteem decrement is definitional of shame, unless they also claim that it is not a definition that is widely known.

But worse for Zahavi is that there are even physiological stress responses associated with both shame and embarrassment, and that these are similar for both emotions. Lewis and Ramsay [M Lewis and D Ramsay, Cortisol Response to Embarrassment and Shame, Child Development Vol. 73, No. 4 (Jul. – Aug., 2002), pp. 1034-1045] measure cortisol levels in children that have been placed in embarrassing and shameful situations. Cortisol is a hormone released in response to stress. [G Baker et al, \underline{Stress, Cortisol Concentrations, And Lymphocyte Subpopulations}, British Medical Journal, Vol. 290, No. 6479 (May 11, 1985), p. 1393] Lewis and Ramsay found that `cortisol response scores for the children who showed [….] embarrassment and for the children who showed shame’ were very similar `indicating that the relation to cortisol response was comparable for the two emotions’. If the stress is not related to a decrease in self-esteem, then where is it from?

In addition, Zahavi may be challenged from a gender perspective. Lewis and Ramsay note that `boys show more exposure embarrassment than girls did at 22 months’ while `girls consistently show more shame than do boys’. To be fair, the authors also note that the embarrassment difference fades by 35 months. Nevertheless, Zahavi is committed by this evidence to the claim that girls have lower self-esteem than boys. That claim may have some currency, but as Gentile [K Gentile, Review: [untitled], NWSA Journal, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 481-483] notes in a review of work by Kenway and Willis [J Kenway and S Willis, Hearts and Minds: Self-Esteem and the Schooling of Girls, New York: Falmer Press, 1990], `self-esteem studies […] surprisingly, find no empirical evidence to support the wide-spread notion that girls are deficient in self-esteem’.

The other side of the distinction that Zahavi needs is that shame always causes a decrease in self-esteem. But imagine some group whose members gain approbation within the group from acts that non-members of the group would call shameful. For example, for a prospective recruit, `murder would form part of a gang initiation rite’. [BBC Reporter, Race killer’s prison boast, London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 19 February 1999] No doubt the recruit would not feel shame and could indeed feel an increase in self-esteem at becoming a gang member. That is fine for Zahavi, but he needs to explain the sequence of events if subsequently the gang member repents of his actions, which would involve shame caused by a change in the accepted relevant group of evaluators, being wider society rather than the gang. Zahavi needs this penitent to feel a decrease in self-esteem, but would he not on the contrary feel an increase because he had now realized his errors and become rehabilitated in wider society? If Zahavi counters that the self-esteem increment derives from the rehabilitation and the shame from the belated realization that the original action was in fact shameful, he will need an analysis that separates two elements that at least in this story are inseparable: the gang member cannot have the rehabilitation if there is nothing from which to be rehabilitated.

In support of his line, Zahavi notes a remark he ascribes to G Strawson that past episodes of embarrassment can be retailed because they are funny but not past episodes of shame: these continue to be shameful and will remain hidden. This can be questioned. Although there are many examples of people telling stories about situations in which they were embarrassed at the time, is it really the case that no-one ever tells such a story about a shameful situation, no matter how long afterwards? Zahavi may counter that it must be an amusing story, but even that seems possible. There is a story in my family relating to a wartime exploit involving my grandfather, a large mobile anti-aircraft gun and the destruction of civilian property. This would doubtless have been an occasion for shame rather than embarrassment at the time, but the story was nevertheless extant during the life of my grandfather. Zahavi has a further counter about time expired, but his defense would then be ad hoc. Since the exercise aimed to construct a clean distinction, it will have failed if it relies on vague concepts like `sufficient’ elapsed time.

Mead

Zahavi discusses Mead [G Mead, Mind, Self and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962] in the context of attempting to elucidate what shame tells us about the self. Zahavi’s own view is that `[t]he shamed self is a more complex (and complicated) self than the experiential self’, meaning that shame is necessarily social and experience is not. If this is intended as a potential distinction between shame and embarrassment, then again, Zahavi has empirical problems. As Tangney et al [J Tangney and D Mashek, Shame, Guilt, and Embarrassment: Will the Real Emotion Please Stand Up?, Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2005), pp. 44-48] show, embarrassment is more socially oriented than shame: `when embarrassed, people were more likely to feel that others were looking’; moreover, `the shamed individual feels isolated from others’.

Zahavi describes Mead’s view that self-consciousness is a by-product of becoming aware of others; the idea being that others are initially more salient to the infant than the infant is to itself. They would then become aware of themselves — `passing the mirror test’ — and note the physical similarity between themselves and others as an intermediate step to postulating that they are mentally similar to others, once they also observe that others seem to have mental states and desires.

The standard — but not universally held — view in psychological research is that infants develop a theory of mind between the ages of three and five. [K Riggs (ed.), Children’s Reasoning And The Mind}, Hove: Psychology Press Ltd., 2000] Prior to this point, they fail the false belief test: they assume that if they know something then everyone does. Given that, if Mead is correct that self-consciousness requires awareness of others, then there could be no self-consciousness in infants prior to the ages of three to five. This would support my previous contention that the evidence for phenomenal awareness in infants is slimmer than Zahavi supposes. Mead holds that prior to the advent of self-consciousness, feelings would be experienced as part of the environment. That also supports my view that infants do not have phenomenal experience because otherwise we would have to say that `there is something it is like for them’ and that that something is `external to them’.

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About timlshort
I am the author of "Simulation Theory" and "The Psychology Of Successful Trading," both published by Routledge. tinyurl.com/oosta11

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