Guilt–shame–fear spectrum of cultures

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In cultural anthropology, the distinction between a guilt society or guilt culture, shame society or shame culture and honor–shame culture, and a fear society or culture of fear, has been used to categorize different cultures.[1] The differences can apply to how behavior is governed with respect to government laws, business rules, or social etiquette. This classification has been applied especially to so called "apollonian" societies, sorting them according to the emotions they use to control individuals (especially children) and maintaining social order, swaying them into norm obedience and conformity.[2]

  • In a guilt society, control is maintained by creating and continually reinforcing the feeling of guilt (and the expectation of punishment now or in the afterlife) for certain condemned behaviors. The guilt worldview focuses on law and punishment. A person in this type of culture may ask, "Is my behavior fair or unfair?"[citation needed] This type of culture also emphasizes individual conscience.[3]
  • In a shame society, the means of control is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism. The shame–honor worldview seeks an "honor balance" and can lead to revenge dynamics.[citation needed] A person in this type of culture may ask, "Shall I look ashamed if I do X?" or "How will people look at me if I do Y?" Shame cultures are typically based on the concepts of pride and honor,[4]. Often actions are all what count and matter.
  • In a fear society, control is kept by the fear of retribution. The fear worldview focuses on physical dominance. A person in this culture may ask, "Will someone hurt me if I do this?"[citation needed]

The terminology was popularized by Ruth Benedict in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, who described American culture as a "guilt culture" and Japanese culture as a "shame culture".[5][6]

Guilt societies[edit]

In a guilt society, the primary method of social control is the inculcation of feelings of guilt for behaviors that the individual believes to be undesirable. A prominent feature of guilt societies is the provision of sanctioned releases from guilt for certain behaviors, whether before or after the fact. There is opportunity in such cases for authority figures to derive power, money, or other advantages by manipulating the conditions of guilt and the forgiveness of guilt.

Paul Hiebert characterizes the guilt society as follows:

Guilt is a feeling that arises when we violate the absolute standards of morality within us, when we violate our conscience. A person may suffer from guilt although no one else knows of his or her misdeed; this feeling of guilt is relieved by confessing the misdeed and making restitution. True guilt cultures rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behavior, not, as shame cultures do, on external sanctions. Guilt cultures emphasize punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order; shame cultures stress self-denial and humility as ways of restoring the social order. (Hiebert 1985, 213)

Shame culture[edit]


In China, the concept of shame is widely accepted[6][7] due to Confucian teachings. In Analects, Confucius is quoted as saying:[where?]

Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously.[8]


The first book to cogently explain the workings of the Japanese society was The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict. This book was produced under less than ideal circumstances since it was written during the early years of World War II in an attempt to understand the people who had become such a powerful enemy of the Allies. Under the conditions of war, it was impossible to do field research in Japan.

Without being able to study in Japan, Benedict relied on newspaper clippings, histories, literature, films, and interviews of Japanese-Americans. Her studies came to conclusions about Japanese culture and society that are still widely criticized today, both in the United States and Japan.[9]


To the Roma, though living as local minorities in mostly Christian countries, the concept of lajav ("shame") is important, while the concept of bezax ("sin") does not have such significance.[10]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ David J. Hesselgrave, Counseling Cross-Culturally: An Introduction to Theory and Practice for Christians, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002, p. 212.
  2. ^ Silver, Alan Jews, Myth and History: A Critical Exploration of Contemporary Jewish Belief p.161
  3. ^ De Mente, Boye Lafayette (1996) There's a Word for It in Mexico pp. 79–80
  4. ^ Lloyd-Jones, Hugh (1983) The Justice of Zeus
  5. ^ Ezra F. Vogel, Foreword, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1989)
  6. ^ a b Ying and Wong. "Cultural Models of Shame and Guilt". Cultural Influences.
  7. ^ Bedford, Olwen (2004). "Source:2014 Journal Citation Reports® (Thomson Reuters, 2015) The Individual Experience of Guilt and Shame in Chinese Culture". Culture & Psychology. 10 (1): 29–52. doi:10.1177/1354067X04040929. S2CID 143436969.
  8. ^ Confucius, The Analects
  9. ^ Kent, Pauline (June 1999). "Japanese Perceptions of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword". Dialectical Anthropology. 24 (2): 181–192. doi:10.1023/a:1007082930663. S2CID 140977522.
  10. ^ Delia Grigore, Rromanipen-ul (rromani dharma) şi mistica familiei "Rromanipen (Rromani Dharma) and the Family Mystics" (2001, Salvaţi copiii, Bucharest)


  • Hiebert, Paul G., Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.

Further reading[edit]