Have you ever noticed that little children never feel guilty or ashamed? Social emotions are emotions that require us to imagine the state of another person’s mind, and that ability is not present in toddlers. Social emotions—guilt, shame, embarrassment, and pride—begin to develop around the time a child learns that other people have internal states that are different from his or her own.
Children begin to be able to describe situations that might cause embarrassment or pride a little later, and by adolescence all his or her social interactions will include social emotions. Social emotions allow us to do things such as make friends, resolve conflicts, drive a bargain, and make morally acceptable decisions in our community. They not only help us to regulate our behavior with regard to our group (family, tribe, country), but they also help the group itself to cohere and function smoothly. For example, guilt may reduce freeloading (taking group resources without contributing to them) and promote helping others, both crucial elements for long-term group health and stability. It makes sense, then, that social emotions are sometimes referred to as the moral emotions, because they inherently include the feelings and situations of other people.
Guilt—The function of guilt is to direct our behavior in a positive way toward our group. We feel guilt when we hurt someone in our group, or when we fail to reciprocate care or kindness. It motivates us not to hurt people in our group and to give back to others who have given to us, and in that way we strengthen the survival prospects of both the group and ourselves.
Shame—The function of shame is twofold. On the one hand, it keeps us within the rules and norms of society by letting us know when we have done something dishonorable, disgraceful, or in some way condemned by our group. On the other hand, it lets the other members of our group know that we know that we have dishonored ourselves. The main difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is focused on a bad behavior, whereas shame is focused on ourselves as bad. Shame and guilt have almost the same physical expression, consisting of elements such as blushing, hanging of the head, downcast eyes, and covering of the body with the arms.
Embarrassment—Embarrassment is related to shame, but includes some important differences. Embarrassment can only happen in public, whereas shame can happen when we are alone. We can feel embarrassment about very minor issues that have no moral implications, such as a body odor, whereas shame typically concerns more grave and morally loaded issues. Embarrassment also has a different physical expression, which includes such elements as sweating, stammering, sweating, and fidgeting.
Pride—The function of pride is to reinforce when we or another person have done or represented something the group finds excellent. In this way, group values are reinforced and incentivized, which again helps the group to function better and motivates us to do things the group values. Pride is physically expressed by an upright, open posture, sometimes with the arms outstretched or upraised. There is a negative form of pride in which our internal appraisal of our worth is inflated compared to the opinions of others, which is more correctly called hubris.
photo by JD Lasica