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Do we want convicted felons to express guilt and shame, or no?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

Guilt-vs.-Shame1Almost three years ago, we blogged about what we called the Scott Peterson Effect citing a 2001 literature review of 45 years of research on remorse in capital murder defendants. Now, we have new article on the role of shame and guilt in predicting recidivism. To these researchers, the difference between shame and guilt is critical, but they acknowledge many others may find the difference subtle (or nonexistent).

With guilt, the feeling is focused on specific behaviors we feel bad for having done. This is a feeling that externalizes the behavior: it is what we did or how we behaved that is bad–not that we are actually bad on the inside.

With shame, the focus is on our sense that others will view us negatively or see us as a bad person. Shame is usually due to our expectation of how others view us, rather than guilt, which is more related to how we view ourselves.

Therapy work often focuses on helping people differentiate between having done a bad thing (and feeling guilt) versus seeing yourself as a bad person (and feeling shame over how others might perceive us). Interestingly enough, these researchers found something similar (more or less) when it comes to recidivism and whether the inmate feels guilt or shame.

The researchers interviewed 476 inmates (average age of 33 years with an age range from 18 to 70 years; average education of 12 years; 1/3 female and 2/3 male; 45% African American, 35% White, 9% Latino, 3% Asian, 4% mixed race, and 4% “other)  shortly after incarceration and then re-interviewed 332 of them (70% of the initial sample) one year after their release from incarceration. (They were able to obtain recidivism reports on 446 participants–a total of 94% of the initial sample.) The initial interview asked questions about their feelings of guilt, shame and externalization of blame. The follow-up interview asked them if they had been arrested again and, cleverly, if they had committed a crime but had not been caught. The researchers (again, cleverly) compared the self-reports to official arrest records.

And here is what they found:

Those who expressed guilt in the initial interviews were less likely to re-offend. The more guilt expressed, the less likely the individual will re-offend.

The findings related to shame are more nuanced. The inmate who expressed shame but also was defensive and blamed others was more likely to re-offend. On the other hand, inmates who expressed shame but did not blame others were less likely to re-offend and end up in jail again.

In other words, it’s about personal responsibility– if you truly regret what you have done, and don’t blame others for your being held responsible, you are more likely to have ‘learned your lesson’. Shame often involves being angry at those who cause you to feel badly about yourselves, or an externalization of the cause of the shame, instead of taking personal responsibility for what was done wrong, the conviction, and the consequences.

The researchers recommend the use of “guilt-inducing, shame-reducing” interventions “guided by restorative-justice principles” to lessen the likelihood of recidivism with inmates expressing shame shortly after incarceration. They intend to investigate the relationship of guilt and shame to other post-release variables (e.g., substance abuse, mental health, and readjustment into the communities).

It’s an interesting way to look at recidivism and something we think Prosecutors and probation departments might want to examine. In the sentencing phase, jurors often want to punish but they also may want to keep the community safe if and when the Defendant is released. Educating jurors on the Defendant’s statement of remorse or guilt or shame (and what that means according to this research) could lessen their willingness to lower the sentence due to empathic pulls for mitigation. Of course, that raises issues of expert testimony on the subject, Daubert challenges to the research, and other considerations.

More readily applicable, probation departments and boards of Pardons and Paroles might want to weigh this kind of evidence as they consider how to make decisions and to supervise ex-convicts. Given the very flawed research on prediction of recidivism and dangerousness that we recently reviewed, this could contribute significantly to this part of the criminal justice system.

One advantage of this research is that it has face validity. That is, the average person looks at the pattern of wrongdoing combined with taking responsibility (or not) for it, and they can see that it makes sense which person is more worthy of trusting in the future. Compared to the flawed risk assessment psychological measures with questionable predictive ability, this approach suggests a method many people would find more trustworthy.

Tangney JP, Stuewig J, & Martinez AG (2014). Two Faces of Shame: The Roles of Shame and Guilt in Predicting Recidivism. Psychological Science PMID: 24395738


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