Emotions: Finding a Path through the Chaos of Current Beliefs
Thomas Scheff February 10, 2014
Understanding the realm of emotions is beset by an elemental difficulty: the meaning of words that refer to emotion are so ambiguous that we hardly know what we are talking about. Virginia Woolf stated it succinctly: “The streets of London have their map; but our passions are uncharted” (1922). Compared to maps of the material world and the social/behavioral science of behavior, thoughts, attitudes, perception, and beliefs, the realm of emotions is still terra incognita.
This state of affairs can be viewed in any standard dictionary. Here, for example, are three definitions from the current Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:
Pride: A feeling that you respect yourself and deserve to be respected by other people. or, A feeling that you are more important or better than other people.
Anger: A strong feeling of being upset or annoyed because of something wrong or bad: the feeling that makes someone want to hurt other people, to shout, etc.
Shame: a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong. Or: dishonor or disgrace.
This definition of pride shows a crucial aspect of vernacular usage, its ambiguity. The word can mean either of two different things. Moreover, these two meanings are opposites: the first is positive, the second, quite negative. It may be so negative to even taint the positive version.
The definition of anger is not ambiguous, but it seems to imply support for a popular idea that has been proven erroneous many times (E.g. Bushman 2002), that anger is resolved by venting. According to the definition, anger “makes someone want to hurt other people. The use of the word “makes” connects with the still popular confusion between anger as an emotion and as a behavior. This confusion is an aspect of the idea that the emotion of anger compels aggressive behavior: “I couldn’t help it: my anger made me do it.”
Finally, the definition of shame, like that of pride, is ambiguous, since there are two different meanings. One of them erroneously defines shame in terms of two other emotions, grief and guilt. The first definition is about inner feeling, the second seems to include the outer world also. As will be discussed below at greater length, the English language is particularly confused and misleading with respect to shame.
Defenses against Emotion
In modern Western societies, children are routinely taught that emotions are usually unimportant or inappropriate. The ruling idea of rationality gives rise to this process; emotions are seen as irrational. One major source of this idea is confusion over the meaning of anger: many see it as meaning behavior: the acting out of anger. But anger is only an emotion. Acting it out is usually irrational, as is hiding it completely.
People learn how to avoid or condemn emotions in four ways.
1. Ignore: Most discussions in lay language don’t mention emotions. Objects, behavior, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, images, and perception are speakable, but not emotions. This is by far the most prevalent defense. For many years the social/behavioral sciences had no sections devoted specifically to the study of emotions. Now that such sections had been established, they remain small enclaves relative to the more established subfields.
2. Generalize: When emotions are mentioned, as they are beginning to be, the references are often at so abstract and general a level as to amount to dismissal. The word emotion and terms like feeling, affect, and emotional arousal or upset refer to such a variety of states as to avoid most issues. Another almost as obscuring usage is to name groups of emotions instead of single specific ones. Guilt and shame are often mentioned together, as are fear, shame and anger, and many other groups. The widespread practice of classifying emotions as either positive or negative seems also to be erroneous. All emotions, when in their normal form, are life enhancing. Emotions are like breathing, they only hurt when they are curtailed
3. Disguise: There are a vast number of words that avoid the specific name, such as feeling “hot under the collar,” “awkward” or “rejected” instead of using the term angry, embarrassed or the s-word itself (Retzinger 1995).
4. Confuse: The final line of defense is that even words that refer to specific emotions are ambiguous and/or mask one emotion with another.
Experts disagree on almost everything about emotions. For example, several studies have pointed out the lack of agreement on basic emotion names. Ortony et al (1988, p. 27) reported on twelve investigators, some leading experts in the field. Even the number of such emotions, much less the specific emotions, is in contention; the fewest proposed is two, the most, eleven. There is not a single emotion term that shows up on all 12 lists. Plutchick (2003) also shows wide-ranging disagreement (see the 16 theorists on p. 73).
This disagreement involves emotion words in only one language, English. The comparison of different languages opens up a second level of chaos. Anthropological and linguistic studies suggest that just as the experts disagree on the number and names of the basic emotions, so do languages. Cultural differences in emotion words will be briefly referred to below, but it is too large an issue to be discussed at length.
The emotion taxonomy in the West, particularly in English, is relatively small. Although English has by far the largest total number of words (approaching a million), its emotion lexicon is smaller than other languages, even tiny languages like Maori. In addition to having a larger emotion lexicon than English, its emotion words are relatively unambiguous and detailed compared to English (Metge 1986).
As indicated above, in Western societies, emotions are seldom mentioned. Or if mentioned, often abstractly, avoiding specifics. The last stage of defense is that even when specific emotions are mentioned, usage of these words tends to confuse.
Grief: In this case, ambiguity might seem to amount only to the choice of words. Most authors use the term grief to refer to the emotion of loss. But there was a very large literature on attachment in which the authors used the term distress instead. Distress is broader than grief and implies consciousness more than grief.
For reasons that he didn’t make clear, Silvan Tomkins (1962) seems to have started the use of the word distress. In the first three volumes of his influential study (1962; 1963; 1965; 1992) distress is used frequently, with grief occurring only once. However, in V. 4, there is a sharp change; distress disappears, its place taken by grief.
Usage in the first three volumes it is fairly clear, because he connects distress to loss and crying. In IV, he makes this connection using only the word grief. What happened? As far as I know, there has been no published response to this dramatic change in nomenclature.
The original studies of facial expression of emotion followed Tompkins first usage: neither Ekman & Friesen (1978) nor Izard (1977) referred to grief. However, later works, such as Harre’ and Parrott (1996), refer only to grief, never to distress. Plutchik (2003) also refers only to grief. Others use the word sadness, rather than distress or grief. Like distress, sadness implies conscious feeling, which seems to be a sizable error. Counselors who deal with delays in mourning often report the absence of sadness as a particularly difficult obstruction to completing mourning. This issue was considered by Volkan (1993), but he elided around both grief and distress by referring only to failure to mourn. It would seem that anarchy rules in the naming of the emotion associated with loss and crying.
Pride: As already indicated, the confusion is flagrant, since pride has two distinct and opposing meanings in current usage, one positive, the other negative. The dominant one is negative, as in the Biblical “Pride goeth before the fall.” This usage confounds the positive meaning, authentic or justified pride, with arrogance, egotism or self-centeredness. (This duality has been noted many times in my work on shame, and recently by Tracy et al 2009).
Fear/anxiety: Before Freud, fear meant the emotional signal of physical danger to life or limb, and anxiety was just a more diffuse kind of fear. But after Freud, the meaning of these words began to expand. Anxiety became broader, enough to include many kinds of diffuse emotion, but not as broad as “emotional arousal.” Current vernacular usage is so enlarged that fear can be used to mask other emotions, especially shame and humiliation. “I fear rejection” has nothing to do with danger of bodily harm, nor does “social fear” or “social anxiety.” These terms refer rather to the anticipation of shame or humiliation.
Anger: the confusion in the vernacular over the meaning of this word seems to be different than any of the above. It involves confounding the feeling of anger with acting out anger. We don’t confuse the feeling of fear with running away, the feeling of shame with hiding one’s face, or the feeling of grief with crying. But anger is thought to be destructive, even though it is only an emotion.
Anger is an internal event, like any other emotion. It is one of the many pain signals that alert us to the state of the world inside and around us. In itself, if not acted out, it is instructive, not destructive. The condemnation of emotions as negative in Western societies is another aspect of the chaos of emotion words. Normal emotions, at least, are not negative, since they are brief, instructive and vitally necessary for survival.
When anger is expressed verbally and respectfully, rather than acted out as yelling or aggression, it is usually constructive. It explains to self and other how one is frustrated, and why. Both self and other need to know this information. The confounding of anger expression with acting out can be a seen as a way of justifying aggression, as in spousal abuse and road rage. “I couldn’t help myself.”
Shame: Current usage of shame in English aims toward an extremely narrow meaning: a crisis feeling of intense disgrace. In this usage, a clear distinction is made between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment can happen to anyone, but shame is conceived as horrible. Embarrassment is speakable, shame is unspeakable. This usage avoids everyday shame such as embarrassment and modesty, and in this way sweeps most shame episodes under the rug.
Other languages, even those of modern societies, treat embarrassment as a milder version of shame. In Spanish, for example, the same word (verguenza) means both. Most languages also have an everyday shame that is considered to belong to the shame/embarrassment family. For example, the French pudeur, which is translated as modesty, or better yet, a sense of shame, is differentiated from honte, disgrace shame. If you ask an English speaker is shame distinct from embarrassment, they might answer with an impassioned yes. But a French speaker might ask “Which kind of shame?”
Suppose that just as fear signals danger of bodily harm, and grief signals loss, shame signals disconnection. In modern societies, since actually connecting with others, even briefly, is infrequent, we can hide that fact. Instead of saying that we were embarrassed, we can use an elaborate alternative: “It was an awkward moment for me.” It was the moment that was awkward (projection), not me that was embarrassed (denial).
In English especially, there is a vast supply of code words that can be used as alternatives to the s-word (Retzinger 1995). She lists more than a hundred vernacular words that may stand for shame, under six headings:
Alienated: rejected, dumped, deserted, etc.
Confused: blank, empty, hollow, etc.
Ridiculous: foolish, silly, funny, etc.
Inadequate: powerless, weak, insecure, etc.
Uncomfortable: restless, tense, anxious, etc.
Hurt: offended, upset, wounded, etc.
The broadening use of fear and anxiety is another way of disguising shame. To say that one fears rejection, or to use a term like social anxiety, is to mask the common occurrence of shame and embarrassment. We can also disguise the shameful pain of rejection by masking it with anger or withdrawal and silence. Studies of stigma, even though this word literally means shame, seldom take note of the underlying emotion, concentrating instead on thoughts and behavior. Apologies suggest another instance of masking shame with another emotion. The ritual formula for an apology in English is to say that you are sorry. But the word sorry (grief) serves to mask the more crucial emotion of shame. ”I’m ashamed of what I did” is a more potent apology.
To make the point of the hiding of emotions more strongly, this section will suggest that there are a vast number of studies of shame that are not known as such. Unlike many researchers, the psychiatrist James Gilligan (1997) wrote a book that openly focused on shame. He proposed that hidden shame is a cause of violence, based on his experience as a prison psychiatrist. When he asked prisoners why they killed, the answers were virtually all the same: being dissed (disrespected). Gilligan didn’t write a book about dissing or even disrespect as a cause of violence. Instead, he related it to what might turn out to be a universal human emotion, shame.
Although there is a personal and cultural part of shame, it also seems to be universal as a mammalian signal of threat to the social bond, the feeling, however slight or intense, of rejection. The difficulty in studying shame in modern societies is that even more than the the f-word, the s-word is usually taboo. For that reason, there are many studies of the shame system, but hidden under other terms: fear of rejection, disrespect, stigma, social anxiety, honor cultures, revenge, etc.
Gilligan’s book was not a huge success, either commercially or academically. It was never on the bestseller lists; it stands currently at below the 30 thousandth mark. According to Google Scholar, it has been cited 400 times, which is 24 times a year since its publication. It seems that it has been little noticed by the public or by scholars.
Perhaps it might have been more popular with a different title and approach. The actual title, Violence: reflections on a national epidemic, is neither attractive nor informative. Perhaps a title like Dissing as a Cause of Violence would have had more appeal. But if Gilligan had wanted to have the word dissing in the title, he might have had to stick with the dissing-disrespect thesis, not even mentioning his notion of secret shame. The s-word might not only be not appealing, but even repulsive. Publishers notoriously find it so, especially if the author wants to put it in the title.
What could be repulsive about the s-word, since it’s only a word? One could ask the same question about the f-word, since it also is only a word. It is clear that the f-word was completely repulsive for the sixty years before 1961, at least in print. According to the Google Ngram, there was not a single occurrence in books in the English language between 1900 and 1960. It appears that printed books were fussy about this matter, since when I was in basic training in the Army in 1953, it seemed to be almost every other word out of the mouths of trainers and trainees alike.
Oddly, with the f-word becoming more visible in print beginning in 1961, the s-word has been getting less. The N-gram shows that the frequency of use in English language books has been decreasing steadily for two hundred years (1800-2000). To see if this decline was in English only, I checked the Ngrams for French, German and Spanish equivalents. The decrease has been occurring in these languages also over the two hundred years. What is going on?
The Taboo on Shame
From his study of European history, the sociologist Norbert Elias (1939; 1978) proposed that shame and its close kin (embarrassment and humiliation) are the dominant emotions in modern societies, even though they are taboo. As already indicated, these three emotions have also been frequently studied in social/behavioral, political and medical science (particularly psychiatry), and history, but under different names.
There are many studies in anthropology of “cultures of honor”: how insults to honor lead to humiliation and revenge. Most of these studies however, assume that this sequence causes violence in traditional societies, where shame is out in the open. It is usually not considered to occur in modern societies. Although the word honor has gone out of style, the emotion of shame has not. If it is biologically based, it is also a human universal and ahistorical.
The taboo on shame has many weakening effects on knowledge, because it cordons off into separate groups what ought to be a single field, reinforcing the existing taboo. For example, it hides other studies that support Gilligan’s conjecture on hidden shame as a cause of violence, such as status attainment, loss of social status, search for recognition, honor/dishonor, vengeance or revenge, and so on. It also slows down the process of replicating studies that support the hypothesis (Lacey 2009; Websdale 2010), and testing a broader hypothesis extending to both violence and silence (Scheff 2011). If the shame-violence/silence hypothesis is even partly true, it carries a crucial message for our civilization.
Norbert Elias also provided another thesis: there is a difference between shame that is felt, the basis of morality, and shame that is hidden not only from others but even from self. In his study (1939; 1978) of five hundred years of European history, he analyzed etiquette manuals in three languages. Two key findings: 1. As physical punishment decreased, shame became dominant as the main agent of morality. 2. As shame became more prevalent, it also went underground, becoming virtually invisible.
How can shame become invisible? Modern audiences cannot accept this idea, since they equate emotion and feeling. However, most people will agree that at times a person’s anger can be obvious to others, yet the angry person seems unaware of it. A similar argument can be made about fear: since boys, especially, are taught to equate fear with cowardice, they learn to automatically suppress fear to the point that they don’t feel it. It may be that recklessness, particularly, arises from this process. Similarly, perhaps a person can be in a bodily state of shame without feeling ashamed.
Elias interpreted invisibility in terms of taboo: in modernization shame becomes a topic that is not to be talked about, just as sex was such a topic in the 19th century. As sex and especially the f-word were taboo then, so the s-word has become taboo now. The psychologist Gershen Kaufman is one of several writers who have argued that shame is taboo in our society:
American society is a shame-based culture, but …shame remains hidden. Since there is shame about shame, it remains under taboo. ….The taboo on shame is so strict …that we behave as if shame does not exist (1989).
The taboo is not on all uses of the word shame, since there are speakable usages, such as “What a shame” or the jokey “Shame on you.” What is taboo is the central meaning of shame, the emotion of being excluded and perhaps worthless for that reason. The phrase “What a shame” does not refer to a specific feeling, since “What a pity” means exactly the same thing. Just as the f-word was once completely taboo before the 1960’s, the s-word, when used to mean the emotion of shame, is still taboo.
Reclaiming Shame Studies
Shame and its siblings are much less discussed than other emotions, not only by the public, but also researchers. How could that be? There have been many studies of shame, but most of them use what Elias called circumlocutions. An illustrative example is found in a recent study of doctor-patient relationships by Leape, et al (2012). Instead of referring to how the doctor may shame a patient, the title uses the phrase “disrespectful behavior toward patients.” The article makes no reference to shame. Although the reader will understand what is meant, the phrase cuts the authors off from an understanding of shame dynamics that are openly available in the literature on shame and its siblings.
Another example is stigma. There are thousands of studies in the social, behavioral and medical sciences of this topic. The idea is that police arrest or illness diagnosis may carry with it an unintended consequence: shaming the recipient to self and/or his/her social network. These studies virtually never use the term shame in the title, and in most cases, even in the body of the study. In this case taboo causes the shame connection to be hidden even though shame is the literal meaning of stigma. Self-esteem is a vast domain that has gone utterly awry because it ignores the pride/shame dimension (Scheff and Fearon 2004).
The idea that shame is taboo in modern societies points to the necessity of bringing it and all emotions out in the open. Perhaps it can be done first in scholarship, then with the public. It appears that many of the worse features of modern societies, such as war, are caused, in part, by the hiding of shame. Other areas that might be better understood: the punitive element in legal systems, especially in imprisonment, stuck negotiations and mediations, and individual and mass prejudice in social class, ethnic/racial and gender relationships. Perhaps it may be possible to bring shame out of the closet at least as far as been done with sex.
Bushman, Brad J. 2002. Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Vol 28(6). 724-731.
Ekman, Paul, and Friesen, Wallace. 1978. Facial Action Coding System. Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press
Elias, Norbert. 1939. Über den Prozess der Zivilisation). Reprinted in 1978 as The Civilizing Process. London: Blackwell.
Gilligan, James. 1997. Violence – reflections on a national epidemic. New York: Vintage Books.
Harre, R. and G. Parrott. 1996. The emotions: social, cultural and biological dimensions. London: Sage
Izard, Carroll. 1977. Human Emotions. New York: Plenum
Kaufman, Gershon. 1989. The Psychology of Shame. New York: Springer.
Lacey, David. 2009. The Role of Humiliation in Collective Political Violence. Sydney: U. of Sydney Press.
Leape, Lucian L. MD; Shore, Miles F. MD; Dienstag, Jules L. MD; Mayer, Robert J. MD; Edgman-Levitan, Susan PA; Meyer, Gregg S. MD, MSc; Healy, Gerald B. V. 2012. The Nature and Causes of Disrespectful Behavior by Physicians. Academic Medicine:87, 7, 845–852
Metge, Joan. 1986. In and Out of Touch. Wellington, NZ: Victoria University Press.
Ortony, Andrew, Gerald Clore, and Allan Collins. 1988. The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Plutchick, Robert. 2003. Emotions and Life. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Retzinger, Suzanne. 1995. Identifying Shame and Anger in Discourse. American Behavioral Science. 38: 104-113.
Scheff, Thomas. 2011. A Theory of Multiple Killing. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16, 6, 453-460.
Scheff, Thomas and David Fearon, Jr. 2004. Social and Emotional Components in Self-Esteem. Journal of the Theory of Social Behavior. 34: 73-90
Tomkins, Silvan. 1962. Affect/Imagery/Consciousness V. I. New York: Springer.
Tracy, Jessica; Joey Cheng; Richard Robins; Kali Trzesniewski. 2009. Authentic and Hubristic Pride: The Affective Core of Self-esteem and Narcissism. Self and Identity, 8, 2 & 3, 196 – 213.
Volkan, Vamik D. and Zintl, Elizabeth (1993). Life after Loss: Lessons of Grief. New York, NY: Charles Scribner.
Websdale, Neil. 2010. Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Style of 211 Killers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
An interview with Thomas Scheff on Emotions