Guilt/shame can be thought to have two potential functions. One is mechanistic, and the other is for signaling.

These functions don't have to go together.

[ For the purposes of this post, I am clustering guilt/shame into one category. I do think they have different functions from each other, but that's not the focus of this post. ]

In some cases, a person feeling guilty will be motivated to change their behavior and then do so.

For example, shame recently got me to learn how to stop slamming car doors. I got multiple external signals that people don't like their car doors being slammed, and that I tend to slam them. So, feeling kind of bad, I installed a TAP to "summon sapience" whenever I close car doors and started practicing another way to close car doors. (I make my hand follow the car door all the way to a close.)

But I didn't really signal outwardly to anyone else that I was feeling shame, in particular not to any of my Lyft drivers. The shame came somewhat gradually after learning that slamming doors was bad.


Other cases, guilt/shame will function both mechanistically and as signaling.

I don't have ready examples of this, so I leave it as an exercise to the reader.


And then there are cases where guilt/shame sort of backfires, mechanistically.

Two classes of responses I've experienced:

1) I avoid the bad thing or the source of the guilt.

2) I deny that anything bad was done (or that even if it was done, it wasn't 'on purpose' or it wasn't 'my fault').

In the past, 1) has been my most common response to guilt/shame. I definitely felt lots of guilt/shame, so it showed up in my face and my body language (the signaling part). But it didn't result in a direct fix. It resulted in avoidance.

When I realized this—that feeling guilt/shame wasn't actually fixing the thing—my approach to guilt/shame changed.

Now I kind of "do guilt/shame less." I do something else. (Because, as previously learned, it doesn't DO the thing. So what's the point? It's anti-helpful.)

That said, guilt/shame probably is still mechanistically useful for plenty of people. (I doubt it would have gotten this far as an emotion if its only function was signaling. I suspect it is, in fact, useful for getting people to change their behavior in reasonable and healthy ways.)

But now we have some people who go around using guilt/shame in the reasonable way. And people like me whose guilt/shame mechanism backfired more often than not and thus just mostly stopped using it. (It was really unhealthy for me and likely led to years of depression.)

But because Typical Mind Fallacy is a thing, people just treat others the way they'd treat themselves.

A person with guilt/shame in their repertoire will use tactics to try to trigger the mechanistic guilt/shame reaction in me, thinking it will work fine. I will return a null error. Their response might either be that I'm a bad / uncaring person or that perhaps they haven't properly triggered it and will try harder.

We can see how this might go poorly.

In the meantime, I state something like, "You made a mistake." And then the person responds with signs of guilt, and I am like, "Huh? That's not what I wanted! I just wanted you to know, so you could fix the thing. Why are you sending me these empty signals?" And in my head, I start doubting that they will in fact fix the thing after all. Because in my head, signs of guilt anti-correlate with actually fixing the thing.

We can see how this might go poorly.


Without guilt/shame, there has to be some other way to convince people that I'm going to change and fix my mistakes. Guilt/shame works because it's a costly signal (it feels bad). Without it, how do I convince people I'm not antisocial?

I have my own answers to this, but will leave it as an exercise to the reader for now.

[ Originally posted to Facebook, contains minor edits ]

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Some people are trained to experience painful guilt as penance. Authority figures sometimes end up training people that if they've done something wrong, they ought to suffer, and then the guilt is expunged. This distracts them from actually doing a fault analysis, but it can still work as a disincentive to do the bad thing if it's sufficiently simple and avoidable.

I think this pattern develops when the problem of whose interests are more important predominates; it seems like the sort of thing that wouldn't develop if people perceived their interests to converge. Guilt as penance is a form of submission. Like all submission, it's based on a fundamentally adversarial paradigm.

I think I have a similar problem. I sometimes just fake the signal. Partly I worry that my insincerity shows, but I also suspect that guilt/shame displays are just becoming devalued in general.

My best solution is to display a (genuine) determination to do better in the future--in fact, I've basically made that my personal definition of an apology. The only trouble is that I can't do this when I don't actually feel I've acted wrongly, which is especially a problem insofar as guilt for things that aren't your fault is sometimes expected. c.f. some theories about survivors' guilt.