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The role of shame and guilt in the development of aggression

Adolescents with autism or hearing loss report fewer feelings of guilt and shame than their peers. However, guilt does still serve a ‘corrective function’ in this group. This is what Evelien Broekhof’s dissertation reveals. PhD defence on 4 June.

We have all felt guilt or shame at some point in our lives. We are left red-faced if we make a mistake or feel awful if we hurt someone. But these emotions are not just there to annoy us: they serve a social purpose. By showing guilt or shame we communicate that we didn’t do something on purpose or that we regret doing it. Guilt and shame therefore ensure that we don’t violate the norms and values of society. Evelien Broekhof researched the role of shame and guilt in the development of aggression during adolescence.

Relationship with aggression

Broekhof’s dissertation shows that guilt has an important role in preventing aggression. Guilt makes adolescents less likely to bully others and also leads to less proactive aggression. Proactive aggression is a ‘cold-blooded’ form of aggression that people use because they want to be mean or boss someone around, or just because they enjoy it.

Broekhof didn’t find the same positive effect in preventing aggression for shame. What is more, shame had a dark side because it is associated with more reactive aggression. This form of aggression is a response to provocation. Shame therefore means that adolescents hit out when provoked, for instance if others gossip about them or if they are shoved.

Less access to the social world

Shame and guilt are often learnt through communication with others. However, we do not all have the same access to social information. Adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) or hearing loss have less access to the social world than is customary for others. Broekhof also researched whether this has an effect on the development of shame and guilt as well as on the relationship of these emotions to the development of aggression.

Broekhof found that adolescents with ASD or hearing loss report less shame and guilt than adolescents from the general population. This means that access to the social world is important to the development of these emotions. However, the relationships between shame, guilt and aggression are the same in this group as in the adolescents from the general population. Despite their lower levels of guilt, adolescents with ASD or hearing loss do not exhibit more aggressive behaviour in general. ‘This is very positive news. It means that the feelings of guilt, despite there being fewer of them, serve an important function in preventing aggression in these groups too.’

Springboard for further research

Broekhof thinks that her dissertation could serve as a springboard for further research. ‘Guilt appears to be a particularly important emotion for preventing the development of aggression. Further research needs to be conducted into how this new knowledge about guilt can be used to prevents aggression.

Evelien Broekhof is now a postdoc at VU University Amsterdam. She is working on a project led by Dr Anders Schinkel on the role of wonder in education. 

Text: Jan Joost Aten
Photo: Grey World via Flickr
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