Michael Lewis is Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, where he teaches psychology, education, and biomedical engineering. He is also director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development and a founding director of the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Autism Center. He received his PhD in 1962 from the University of Pennsylvania in both clinical and experimental psychology.
Dr. Lewis’s research has focused on emotional and intellectual development in children, including the child’s development of a sense of self. His 1983 book, Children’s Emotions and Moods, was the first volume devoted to children’s emotional development, and his Handbook of Emotions (1st edition) (1993) was awarded the 1995 Choice Magazine’s Outstanding Academic Book Award. His 1995 book, Shame: The Exposed Self, has become a cornerstone of attempts to understand this “quintessential” human emotion and has prompted additional research in the field. Lewis helps us distinguish among shame, guilt, and embarrassment and to consider constructive ways of responding to our own feelings of shame, rather than resorting to denial, depression, or rage.
Among his many honors, Dr. Lewis is a fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. In 1995 he was ranked first in impact by a University of Notre Dame review of the most-referenced and productive researchers in the field of developmental sciences.
Now 80 years old, Dr. Lewis continues to write, teach, travel and lecture widely. He spoke with me by phone on two occasions after returning from a month of lecturing in Italy. – Leslee Goodman
The MOON: Why do you say shame is “the quintessential” human emotion?
Dr. Lewis: Shame is uniquely human. Like guilt and embarrassment, shame is one of the self-conscious, “moral” emotions—the emotions that tell us when we’ve violated one of our own internalized standards of behavior. To feel shame, or any of the moral emotions, several cognitive developmental tasks must first have been accomplished. These are human developmental tasks. So far as we know, no animals complete them:
One, we have to have an understanding of ourselves as separate individuals. This occurs when an infant reaches about 18 months of age. Two, we have to know the rules or standards that are applicable in our environment. Three, we have to be able to evaluate our behavior and find it lacking. Finally, we have to accept responsibility for our behavior. If we accept responsibility but limit our judgment of the behavior to a regrettable action, we will feel guilt. If we decide that our behavior is evidence that we are no good, that we are inadequate as individuals, we will feel shame.
Shame is unique because of its moral power. It is so painful to experience that we seldom want to talk about—or even acknowledge—that we feel ashamed. Yet precisely for this reason, shame and guilt are essential to maintaining societal standards. They prevent us from doing things our environment disallows.
Although some animals—dogs, for example—can behave in ways that look like shame, or guilt, we don’t really know enough about animal cognition to say that these developmental hurdles have been cleared. So it is my thesis that shame is a uniquely human emotion.
The MOON: Please tell us more about the differences between shame and guilt.
Lewis: In both shame and guilt one feels a sense of failure, accompanied by remorse. However, as I said, in guilt we feel remorse for our behavior, which can be corrected. If one feels guilty one can apologize and make amends. In shame, however, we generalize our sense of failure to our worth as a person. We feel that we are no good, and it is only with great difficulty that we can even own up to the things we have done that are shameful. That’s why shamed samurai committed seppuku, or why deeply shamed individuals today might commit suicide. Shame has caused them to feel that there is nothing they can do to right what they’ve done wrong.
The MOON: Some researchers have said that guilt is positive—its focus on the behavior prompts corrective action; while shame is inherently negative, because it focuses inappropriately on the notion of a flawed self. Do you agree?
Lewis: I agree that feeling too much shame is inherently negative, just as feeling too much of any emotion can be toxic. But shame is a normal human emotion. I wouldn’t want to live in a shameless society because shame can stop us from behaving badly in the future. It is a powerful preventive. Guilt is good because it can motivate you to make amends in situations that can be rectified. But what about a wrong that can’t be corrected? Shame is important to keep you from doing it!
The MOON: What are some of the most common shame triggers?
Lewis: Within cultures there are a fair number of common shame triggers—such as being publicly humiliated—but across cultures, and even from individual to individual, there is great variation in behaviors that cause shame. In some families, for example, anything less than high academic achievement is considered shameful. In other families, however, a passing grade is completely acceptable. A high score might even be cause for elation.
There are also gender differences in shame triggers. In our culture, for example, men are more likely to feel shame around sexual impotence and failure to succeed in sports, academics, or career; while women are far more likely to feel shame in association with their physical appearance or failure in their personal relationships. That’s why unemployment is far more debilitating for men than for women. It’s also why there are drugs to restore men’s sexual potency and performance, but not women’s. It’s a much more important issue for men.
Conversely, women’s desire to avoid feeling shame leads to all sorts of cosmetics, surgery, dieting, and even eating disorders. Women also are far more likely to take responsibility for personal relationships and, as a result, are far more likely than men to apologize to repair a relationship breach.
Obviously, we develop our shame triggers through parental and societal conditioning, but it’s interesting that children can also trigger feelings of shame in their parents. Say a parent denies a child’s request and the child shows disappointment. Though an entirely appropriate response, the child’s disappointment triggers the parent’s feeling that perhaps they’re no good as a parent. The parent gets angry and orders the child to change his or her attitude. This is an example that illustrates how shame complicates human interactions. Because shame is so painful to experience, people will quickly default to a less painful substitute. In men, the default is rage. In women, the default is more likely to be depression.
I’d also like to mention that certain classes of people are stigmatized—made to feel shame by their culture. In Biblical times, for example, lepers were stigmatized—publicly shamed and shunned. Today, in our culture, people with disabilities—physical or developmental—are often stigmatized. Children of different sexual orientation can be shamed. Children whose parents cannot afford the trendy clothes or footwear are often stigmatized. African American, Mexican American, Muslim, or non-English-speaking immigrants may be stigmatized. Shame can also be felt by association. For example, the parents and siblings of stigmatized people can feel shame and embarrassment that will last a lifetime. This can lead to a shame-rage spiral—in which the shame results in rage, which is expressed in an anti-social way that leads to more shame, which leads to more rage, and so on. Alternatively, perpetual shame can lead to a shame-depression spiral. One can easily see how impoverished minority members may be victimized by this.
The MOON: What about being exposed? The name of your book is Shame: The Exposed Self, and you’ve pointed out that people can feel ashamed simply by having attention focused on them—even if the attention is positive.
Lewis: Yes, well, actually that feeling—embarrassment—is distinct from shame. Guilt and shame we can feel all by ourselves. They’re the result of shortcomings in our own evaluation. But embarrassment requires others; it’s a public emotion. And yes, many people experience it when they are the focus of attention, even positive attention. In fact, embarrassment is the first self-conscious emotion in human development. You can see it in small children when they’re asked to perform in some way.
Under 18 months, children don’t recognize themselves in mirrors, use personal pronouns, or engage in imaginative play in which they take on a role, which is why young children don’t feel guilt, shame, or embarrassment. It takes 18 months or more to develop self-awareness—to be able to reflect upon yourself. The first phenomenological evidence of shame is that you want to hide, disappear, or even die. The body collapses, the head drops; you might cover your face with your hands. It’s the opposite of expressions of pride—a positive self-conscious emotion—in which you puff up, whoop and holler, give a “high five,” or even do a victory dance.
We’ve conducted experiments in which young children—three to five years old—are left alone in a room with a toy that is rigged to fall apart. We observed the children from another room and found that children who felt shame when the toy broke were visibly distressed, yet made no effort to repair the toy. They felt powerless. Children who felt guilt weren’t happy about the toy breaking, but they tried to fix it. This is how we’ve come to distinguish guilt from shame. Kids who felt no responsibility for the toy breaking just shrugged it off—demonstrating that guilt and shame require ownership of responsibility.
It’s interesting that we have also found gender differences in accepting responsibility for behavior. Boys as young as three or four tend not to feel responsibility for their “failures,” yet to take responsibility—pride—for their successes. Conversely, girls as young as three or four are more likely to feel responsibility for their failures and less likely to feel responsibility for their successes—which is one of the reasons women are more prone to depression than men. Boys have to learn to take responsibility for their mistakes and to apologize when their actions have hurt someone.
The MOON: Please say more about that—and about your earlier statement that men will bypass shame and default to rage, while women will bypass shame and default to depression.