Moral emotions and prosocial behaviour: It may be time to change our view of shame and guilt

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From the eighteenth century onwards, moral emotions are perceived as a specific group of emotions that generate prosocial behaviours. Yet, a stream of recent empirical research demonstrates that moral emotions may not always have positive interpersonal consequences. The current chapter focuses upon two exemplary moral emotions, namely shame and guilt, to question the definition of moral emotions. In emotion literature, shame has been understood as a negative feeling with negative interpersonal consequences such as withdrawal and avoidance behaviour. This negative view of shame seems in direct contrast with the view of shame as a moral emotion that motivates prosocial behaviour, and with empirical findings. I present a new view of shame, one in which this moral emotion is focused upon dealing with a damaged self. As a consequence, shame motivates performance and approach behaviours to restore this damaged self, and withdrawal or avoidance behaviour when it is too risky or too dangerous to restore the damaged self. The existing image of guilt in emotion literature is one of a negative emotion with very positive interpersonal consequences. On the contrary, with empirical studies I demonstrate that guilt can have many negative interpersonal consequences, such as promoting prosocial behaviour towards the victim of one’s actions at the expense of others around, and withdrawal behaviour. Together, these findings reveal that, even for such exemplary moral emotions as shame and guilt, subsequent behaviours can vary from antisocial to prosocial. Therefore, there might be nothing intrinsically moral about moral emotions.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Psychology of Emotions: Recent Theoretical Perspectives and Novel Empirical Findings
EditorsC. Mohiyeddini, M. Eysenck, S. Bauer
Place of PublicationNew York
Number of pages365
Publication statusPublished - 2013

Publication series

NamePsychology of Emotions, Motivations and Actions
PublisherNova Science Publishers
NumberVolume 2


  • Emotions
  • Guilt
  • Interpersonal behaviour
  • Moral emotions
  • Prosocial behaviour
  • Shame


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