Shame on us: Paper provides first step in arriving at accepted definitions of basic emotions

December 15, 2014
Shame on us
Thomas Scheff, University of California - Santa Barbara. Credit: Courtesy Photo

Emotions are complicated and never more so than in the realm of the scientific, where commonly accepted definitions are lacking.

In a paper published in the journal Qualitative Inquiry, UC Santa Barbara's Thomas Scheff examines the basic emotions of grief, fear/anxiety, anger, shame and pride as they appear in in an attempt to take a first step in defining them. "Emotion terms, especially in English, are wildly ambiguous," Scheff writes in the paper's introduction.

An emeritus professor of sociology at UCSB, Scheff set out to explore why the language of emotion is so vague. "This paper is a first step toward correcting the chaotic nature of the language of emotion," Scheff said. "Our society treats emotions as a negligible and largely destructive matter, but that's a total fib. Emotions are like breathing; they only make trouble when they're obstructed."

Using grief as an example, he pointed out that in scientific literature other words, such as "distress" and "sadness," are used to describe grief. The absence of decisive definitions, he noted, are an impediment to creating common meaning.

In order to delineate first steps toward clarity, Scheff discussed what he calls "four forward-looking studies of shame, the least understood emotion." In this part of his research, Scheff presented a historical picture of how shame has been defined—and used or ignored—over time.

He began with Norbert Elias, an early-20th-century German sociologist famous for his theory of civilizing processes. Elias suggested a way of understanding the social transmission of the taboo on shame. Decades later, English psychologist Michael Billig proposed that repression begins in social practices of avoidance and went on to explore the nature of repression in detail.

American research psychologist and psychoanalyst Helen Lewis, Scheff's mentor, used a systematic method to locate verbal emotion indicators in transcriptions of psychotherapy sessions. According to Scheff, Lewis' findings showed that shame/embarrassment was by far the most frequent emotion, occurring more than all the other emotions combined. However, these citations were virtually never mentioned by either the client or the therapist. Lewis called this "unacknowledged shame," which she explained could be hidden in two different ways.

Overt, undifferentiated shame involves painful feelings hidden behind terms that avoid the word "shame." This type of shame is marked by pain, confusion and bodily reactions such as blushing, sweating and/or rapid heartbeat. Bypassed shame involves fleeting feelings and is followed by obsessive and rapid thought or speech.

"People are so terribly terrified of shame," Scheff said. "But if you hurt my feelings by saying that my nose is too big and if I pretend that I'm not hurt, then it's going to hurt me for a long time. I'll feel ashamed. But if I say, 'You hurt my feelings,' then you say, 'What do you mean?' and I tell you my feelings, it's going to be a fairly minor event. Yet we live in a society that bypasses or misnames emotions, especially shame."

As far back as the 19th century, psychologists have attempted to establish unambiguous constructs by associating physical sensation with emotion. Building on these concepts, Scheff's latest research included a chart of emotional models supporting the idea that emotions are bodily preparations for actions that have been delayed.

"Shame is a signal that you feel rejected and not accepted just as you are," he explained. "Pride is a signal that you feel accepted just as you are. But because emotions are hidden in modern societies, we are like actors on a stage, acting instead of doing what we think we should do."

Using Ngrams—a word search database created by Google Books and based on more than 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008—Scheff verified a historic decline in the use of shame terms in different languages: American English, British English, French, Spanish and German. He found that decreased usage of what he calls the "s-word" is remarkably similar in three of the five languages: American English, British English and French.

Despite the fact that the use of shame terms appears to be declining, Scheff noted that the topic of shame is present in public discourse now more than ever before. "I've written a lot about shame and I've noticed that it's more in vogue," he said. "And the articles and chapters I've written about shame have become more popular in the last year or two as well." Perhaps with more public discussions about , that term as well as other emotions will begin to be more precisely defined.

Explore further: Sociologist examines the ubiquity of shame and its role in aggression and depression

Related Stories

Breastfeeding: Shame if you do, shame if you don't

November 4, 2014

A new study of 63 women with varied infant feeding experiences reveals that breastfeeding mothers may feel shame if they breastfeed in public due to exposure, while those who do not breastfeed may experience shame through ...

Sadness lasts longer than other emotions

October 30, 2014

Why is it that you can feel sad up to 240 times longer than you do feeling ashamed, surprised, irritated or even bored? It's because sadness often goes hand in hand with events of greater impact such as death or accidents. ...

Goals affect feelings of pride and shame

December 2, 2013

When the St. Louis Cardinals lost the World Series, just how much shame did the players feel? According to researchers at Penn State and Australia's Central Queensland University, a person's goals at the outset of a competence-based ...

After committing a crime, guilt and shame predict re-offense

February 11, 2014

Within three years of being released from jail, two out of every three inmates in the US wind up behind bars again—a problem that contributes to the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. New research suggests ...

Recommended for you

Gene discovered associated with Tau pathology

March 24, 2017

Investigators at Rush University Medical Center and the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston reported the discovery of a new gene that is associated with susceptibility to a common form of brain pathology called Tau that ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Dec 16, 2014
By failing to show the utility of emotion, the evolutionary lineage leading to emotion and by failing to differentiate between the forms of emotion such as emotion verses logical or rational thinking, emotional behaviour, emotional feelings (subjectivity), emotion researchers are doing little more than wasting the time of the public and the scientific community with yet more ungrounded models that have a very short shelf life.

For instance, is a behaviour that looks like an emotion an emotion for that reason? Is a subjectively felt state an emotion even if there is no associated behaviour? What does emotion as a form of thinking (as contrasted with rational or logical thinking) result in behaviour or subjectively felt emotional states?
JVK
1 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2014
http://www.ncbi.n...12496741 won the 2002 Zdenek Klein award

http://www.nel.ed...view.htm won the same award in 2001. Does anyone know an evolutionary theorist who has attempted to include either of these award-winning reviews in their perspective on the evolution of emotions?
Z99
not rated yet Dec 16, 2014
Studies show 'emotional state' is easily influenced by behavior ( eg. facial expressions CAUSE change in 'emotional state'). I'm not sure what 'utility' of emotion means. A 'normal' person is by definition always in one state, emotion is part of that. In as much as different categories of states allows us to predict behavior, or allow intervention, then those categories are useful. The map is not the territory. It seems to me to be clear that an emotional state includes more than the state of the CNS. That is, it involves more than just 'thinking', In fact, I don't agree that emotion is principally thinking; it is feeling. Sloppy terminology at some point needs to be discarded. I doubt there's much utility spending time on evolutionary theory. Its certain that all of our emotions exist for a reason, will evolution tell us whether the historical reason is now relevant? And if not, shouldn't it be considered as an after-thought? I expect a sufficient model of executive function suffices.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.