Implications of Childhood Shame and Guilt for Criminal Behavior in Early Adulthood

Stephanie Kendall, George Mason University
Candace Reinsmith, George Mason University
June Price Tangney, George Mason University

Shame and guilt are generally regarded as moral emotions that inhibit destructive, socially unacceptable behaviors. Recent research, however, indicates that guilt may be the more adaptive emotion, fostering other-oriented empathy and reparative action. In contrast, feelings of shame appear to have a number of hidden costs, often provoking avoidance, denial, externalization of blame and anger. To date, this evidence has come exclusively from studies that measured moral emotions and relevant outcomes concurrently. This paper presents results from a longitudinal study of 380 index children. Moral emotions were assessed in the 5th grade. At age 18-19, participants' involvement in the criminal justice system, drug and alcohol use, patterns of sexual behavior, suicide attempts, high school suspension, and community service involvement were assessed. Shame-proneness assessed in the 5th grade predicted later high school suspension, hard drug use, and suicide attempts. In contrast, guilt-prone 5th-graders were more likely to later apply to college, to practice "safe sex," and to use birth control. They were less likely to attempt suicide attempts, to use heroin, to drive under the influence, and to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated. These effects were independent of family income and mothers' education, as well as children's Time 1 anger.

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Updated 05/20/2006