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Reflect react and interact

The roles of shame, guilt and social access in adolescent aggression

Evelien Broekhof
04 June 2019
PhD thesis defence


Self-conscious emotions are crucial for children’s social development, as these emotions make us aware of norms and values that are necessary for creating and maintaining social harmony. Self-conscious emotions motivate individuals to comply with something more important than their own individual needs, namely a safe and protective social climate (e.g., Beer, Heerey, Keltner, Scabini, & Knight, 2003; Tracy & Robins, 2004). The main aim of this thesis is to enhance our understanding of the role of self-conscious emotions (i.e., shame and guilt) in the development of adolescent aggression.

The studies in this thesis have demonstrated that shame is a risk factor for the development of reactive aggression, and that guilt is an inhibiting force on the development of bullying and proactive aggression. Thus, adolescents with lower levels of guilt are at risk for developing bullying and proactive aggression.

Even though lower levels of self-conscious emotions were reported by adolescents whose access to the social world was diminished by ASD or hearing loss, the longitudinal relations in these groups between shame, guilt and aggression were similar to those in typically developing adolescents. Importantly, this indicates that guilt also functions as an important inhibitor for aggression in adolescents with less access to the social world. However, lower levels of self-conscious emotions in the two groups with less access to the social world do demonstrate that the development of selfconscious emotions depends on sufficient social input. In addition, more factors seem into play for adolescents for which access to their social environment might come less easy, since they do not show heightened levels of aggression (except for proactive aggression in adolescents with hearing loss), despite lower (self-reported) levels of these self-conscious emotions.

Hopefully, this work will inspire other researchers to unravel which and to what extent social information is crucial for the development of self-conscious emotions, because this thesis has shown that guilt is an indispensable aspect in promoting a harmonious society.

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