The Development of Guilt as Repair in Childhood


M.LewisMichael Lewis, Institute for the Study of Child Development, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

May 2016 – While the developmental issues around emotional life have received some attention, it is the self-conscious emotions and their development that need more consideration and study (Lewis, 2014). Darwin, for one, gave them some attention and suggested that these emotions, unlike the primary emotions, are related to the person’s thinking about what others think about them. This put self-reflection at the heart of a whole new class of emotional phenomena that include guilt, shame, pride, hubris, and other self-conscious emotions (Darwin, 1965; Lewis, 1992).

Using the blushing response as a sign of activation of self-conscious emotions, Darwin suggested that self-reflection develops before the third year of life. “It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance,” he said, “but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush” (Darwin, 1965, p. 325). While Darwin’s observations are accurate, he did not explore these emotions further, and since he used blushing as a broad and imprecise measure of activation, he could not distinguish between self-conscious emotions. Doing so required developing a theory of the various cognitions that might be necessary to distinguish between them.

Later research on emotional and cognitive development led to the exploration of the origins of self-reflection through the use of mirror recognition, personal pronouns, and pretend, and to the proposal that the ability to self-reflect emerges in the middle of the second year of life (Lewis & Brooks-Gunn, 1979; Lewis & Michalson, 1983; Lewis & Ramsay, 2004). Moreover, it appears to be related to brain maturation and is associated with increased myelination of the left temporal and frontal lobes (Carmody & Lewis, 2012; Frith & Frith, 2006; Lewis & Carmody, 2008). Of interest is also the nature of self-reflection once it emerges. Some, like Hilgard (1977), have thought about self-reflection as a divided attention, while others, like Mandler (1975) and Csikszenthmihalyi and Csikszenthmihalyi (1988), think about it as a function that can be used or not, namely, while it is available it is not always used, and when used it is combined with other cognitive attributes.

As we explore the topic of self-reflection, a word of caution is in order concerning its developmental appearance. There is considerable confusion about the distinction between self-reflection and feeling. Some action patterns that appear early in development, for example, have been wrongly assumed to require self-reflection. But they do not need it insofar as they occur as part of the early patterns of organized behavior. One example is a disgust face which occurs in the newborn infant as a response to bitter tastes, which is quite different from disgust faces prompted by failure (Lewis, 2014; Mennella, 2012; Rozin, Haidt, & McCauley, 2009). Such early disgust faces are best understood as action patterns not involving self-reflection, although in the course of development these same disgust faces can be associated with cognitive attributes once self-reflection emerges.

A question of continuing interest concerns the distinction between different self-conscious emotions. One approach has centered on self-attribution theories which have as their central feature that different self-conscious emotions emerge from different cognitions (Dweck, 1991; Jones, 1976; Weiner, 1986, for example). Another approach grows out of the idea that there are specific elicitors for the different self-conscious emotions, a view represented by Izard (1977) and Tomkins (1962), and some of the early work of the psychoanalysts. Freud (1953) attempted to distinguish between guilt and shame, but said little about shame (see also Erikson, 1950). When he mentioned shame, he usually did so in the context of drives and impulses, but never provided a clear account of how shame differs from guilt. Freud’s discussion of guilt, however, seems to suggest two types of guilt and H.B. Lewis (1971) and Tangney (1995) have tried to measure them both, arguing that one type of guilt is quite similar to shame.

In more recent times, much progress has been made in the distinction between self-conscious emotions. It is now widely accepted that the development of the self-conscious emotions requires the emergence of self-reflection, which occurs in all typically developing children by the end of the second year of life (Lewis, 1992; Lewis & Ramsay, 2004; Lewis, Sullivan, Stanger, & Weiss, 1989; Stipek, Recchia, & McClintic, 1992). Once self-reflection is established, embarrassment, one of the earliest self-conscious emotions, emerges (Lewis, 1995), as do empathy and jealousy (Bischof-Kohler, 1991; Hart & Legerstee, 2010; Preston & de Waal, 2002). These self-conscious emotions require few attributions (Lewis, 1995, 2014) and can be seen by 3 years of age. The self-conscious emotions that require elaborate evaluative abilities – i.e. attributions – demand more cognitive capacity and can be seen only after 3 years of age (Lewis, 1992; Stipek et al., 1992). These attributions include: (1) standards, rules, and goals (SRGs); (2) evaluation of one’s success or failure vis a vis these SRGs; (3) self or other responsibility for the success or failure. In turn, once the self is deemed responsible, the focus of attention can be either global or specific (Weiner 1986; Dweck 2006).

SRGs are the set of beliefs about what is acceptable for ourselves and others in regard to our actions, thoughts, and emotions. This set of beliefs constitutes the information the child acquires through culturalization and differs across time epochs and among individuals of different ages. The SRGs are internalized and do not necessarily need the presence of an adult to influence behavior.

Evaluations, the second step of attributions, occur when children compare their actions, thoughts, and feelings with their SRGs. This evaluation, which is a function of individual socialization, can lead to a verdict of either success or failure. If passing a test with a C fits one person’s standards, they have succeeded, whereas if another receives a B, which is lower than their standards, that person will have failed. Thus, success or failure is dependent on individually held SRGs.

Within the study of attribution, the issue of internal versus external responsibility has received much attention. Children may succeed or fail with respect to their SRGs, but they can attribute their success or failure to external causes such as chance or the actions of others. Such attributions do not lead to the self-conscious emotions. For example, winning a toy at a fair by chance will make children happy, but will not make them proud, because they have no personal responsibility for the positive outcome.

Furthermore, attributions about the self can be either specific or global, depending on the child’s focus of attention. Some children focus on themselves and make attributions about whether they, their whole selves, are a success or a failure. This has been called global focus (Weiner 1986) or performance focus (Dweck 2006).  Other children focus on the specific features of their actions, thoughts, or feelings (Weiner 1986), or around features of the task (Dweck 2006). The “grain” of focus is the most important feature in the attributional system in distinguishing between guilt and shame, or between pride and hubris (Lewis, 1992).

Simply, guilt is caused by evaluating one’s actions as a failure with respect to the SRGs, whereas shame is caused by evaluating one’s self as a whole as a failure with respect to the SRGs. On the other hand, pride is caused by evaluating one’s actions as a success with respect to the SRGs, and hubris by evaluating one’s self as a whole as a success with respect to the SRGs.

Here, I focus on the distinction between guilt and shame (for further discussion of pride and hubris, see Lewis, in press; Tracy & Robins, 2007; for a discussion of embarrassment, see Lewis, 1995). Shame is the consequence of accepting responsibility for a failure of one’s SRGs and for a global evaluation of that failure, which results in a damaged self. The phenomenological experience of the person in the grip of shame is a wish to disappear, hide, or die. It is a highly negative and painful experience, often accompanied by increases in cortisol response (Lewis & Ramsay, 2002). Such attributions are likely to result in the disruption of ongoing behavior, confusion in thought, and the inability to speak. The observed behavioral pattern that accompanies shame includes a shrinking of the body, and a collapse of the head.

Guilt, on the other hand, has similar attributions of responsibility, i.e. failure of SRGs, but with the major difference that the focus of attention is on the task itself, a more specific attribution than that associated with a damaged self. In fact, the focus is on the causes of the failure and possible ways of correcting it. Behaviorally, guilt is mostly characterized by the attempts at repairing the failure. Indeed, it is the attempt to undo the failure which is the hallmark of guilt and distinguishes it from shame (Lewis, 1992).

The difference between focusing on the failing act (guilt) and focusing on the failing self (shame) has been studied in children. In several studies, children from three to five years of age were presented with a series of tasks, some of which were easy to solve while others were more difficult. Children had two minutes to complete each task and a large clock with a moving hand showed them the time left. They were told that if they completed the task before the alarm went off, they had succeeded, but if they did not complete the task on time – the clock went off before they were finished – then they had failed. The experiment was designed so that each child succeeded in an easy and a difficult task, and failed on an easy and difficult task. Our results seem to support the distinction between guilt and shame.

While in general children showed more shame than guilt, they showed more shame when they failed an easy task than when they failed a difficult task (Lewis, Alessandri, & Sullivan, 1992). The assumption here is that failing at an easy task is an indictment of one’s global abilities as a person, whereas failing at a difficult task simply shows that one’s actions are not up to par on a specific occasion.

Crucially, while shame could be seen in bodily collapse and lack of facial expression, guilt was distinguished by the child’s attempts to try and finish the task even after the bell rang,  which we took to indicate an attempt to undo the failure on the task. We also found that the children who showed guilt were more likely to be task-focused while children who showed shame were more likely to be performance-focused (Matthews, Sullivan, & Lewis, 2012). It is interesting to note that some children who showed guilt-like behaviors had first shown bodily collapse. This suggests that at times there may be a sequence of emotions to one’s responses to failure; first shame, and then guilt.

While we often think of emotions as single events, perhaps we need to think of sequences of emotions which can be manipulated by a self which can choose which emotion to have, like a fugue where thoughts about oneself give rise to emotions, which in turn give rise to other thoughts and other emotions (Lewis, Sullivan, & Michalson, 1984). In addition, some children when they fail at a task do not show any of the self-conscious emotions, in part because they think that their failure was not their fault. Indeed, there is some evidence that males are more likely than females to think that they are not responsible for their failure (Lewis, 1992).

Clearly, feeling guilty allows for children as well as adults to undo their bad thoughts about themselves through action, and thus provide the opportunity for correcting failure with respect to their SRGs.  In turn, this helps to serve as a prosocial response since it allows for the consideration of others rather than the self.

To sum up, the development of guilt and shame in children requires: (1) that children have the capacity to think about themselves; (2) that children possess standards, rules, and goals as a function of the socialization within their social nexus; and (3) that they feel responsible for the violation of these SRGs. The difference between these two emotions is in the children’s focus; in guilt, on the action to correct the failure, and in shame, on the feeling of a damaged self.

From a developmental perspective, it seems clear that by 3 years of age children are capable of thinking about themselves and at the same time thinking about SRGs and responsibility. Because children have limited SRGs even though they have the capacity to think about themselves, they do not possess the equivalent knowledge about SRGs that adults of their group have. Because of this, as well as other limited cognitive capacities, it is likely that there is a developmental direction with an increase in the guilt/shame ratio with age (Lewis, 2014). In fact, more shame is observed than guilt responses in young children, possibly one reason why it is studied less.

Finally, there is the possibility that some children, through socialization and perhaps temperamental differences (Kochanska, Coy, & Murray, 2001), are more shame prone than guilt prone. For example, Alessandri & Lewis (1993) have found that parents are markedly different in what they say to their children when they fail, some focusing on the failing actions and reparation, and others focusing on the child’s failure as a whole. Socialization that focuses on reparation versus self blame is likely to lead to more guilt-like thoughts rather than thoughts of a damaged self.

An increase in research on the self-conscious emotions is sorely needed, especially as it’s related to guilt. The ability to differentiate between self-conscious emotions such as guilt, shame, embarrassment, pride, and hubris offered by the attributional theory I have summarized in this paper allows us to explore the development of each of them in more detail.


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