Shame, Guilt, and Fear: What 1,000 Americans Avoid Most

Many Americans are more worried about their reputation than their conscience

“What’s our biggest cultural fear? Shame,” he said. “What’s surprising is not that personal freedom, ambition, and doing the right thing are valued by Americans. It’s that risk to our reputation is what matters most.”

 

Many Americans are more worried about their reputation than their conscience.

They worry less about guilt and fear and more about avoiding shame, according to a new study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research.

Shame has become particularly powerful in American culture in the internet age, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. A single mistake or embarrassing moment posted on social media can ruin a person’s life.

“What’s our biggest cultural fear? Shame,” he said. “What’s surprising is not that personal freedom, ambition, and doing the right thing are valued by Americans. It’s that risk to our reputation is what matters most.”

Mixed motivations

Shaming has been a part of American life since the days of The Scarlet Letter. Set among the Puritans, the novel tells the story of Hester Prynne, a young mother forced to wear a scarlet “A” after committing adultery, considered a crime at the time. But Americans gave up on public shaming of criminals in the 1830s, according to journalist Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Since then, Americans have been more concerned about issues like guilt over wrongdoing, said McConnell. That’s shaped how churches have presented their faith to the public, he said.

LifeWay Research wanted to know if guilt is still a major issue for Americans. That might affect how Christians talk about their faith, said McConnell, since Christianity also addresses needs such as shame and fear.

“We wanted to know: Are churches addressing the issues Americans care about most?”

Researchers asked 1,000 Americans three questions to discover their feelings about fear, shame, guilt, and other issues.

  • Which of these feelings do you seek to avoid the most?
  • Which of these desires is strongest in your life?
  • Which of these directions do you value the most?

Overall, 38 percent of Americans say they avoid shame the most, while 31 percent say guilt and 30 percent say fear.

Education and age play a role in which feelings Americans avoid. Those with graduate degrees (44%) are more likely to avoid shame than those with high school diplomas or less (34%). Americans ages 25 to 34 avoid guilt (37%) more than those 55 and older (27%). Middle-aged Americans—those 35 to 54— are the most likely age group to worry about shame (44%).

Nones—those who claim no religious identity—avoid guilt (35%) more than those who are religious (30%). Those who are religious avoid shame (39%) more than nones (33%). Those from non-Christian faiths are most likely to avoid shame (48%).

When it comes to what Americans with evangelical beliefs avoid most, 34 percent say guilt, 34 percent say fear, and 32 percent say shame. For Americans worshiping at least once a month, 37 percent say shame, 32 percent say fear, and 31 percent say guilt. (The findings were not significantly different from non-evangelicals or non-worshipers.)

McConnell wonders whether Americans see shame as a bigger threat to their reputation or self-worth than guilt.

“Guilt says, ‘I deserve to be punished,’” he said. “But shame says, ‘I am worthless.’”

Read More

Read another article on this topic: Americans want to avoid shame, make their loved ones proud