edge | My own view on guilt is that it's highly dependent on how much time you get to spend alone. I think that when you have zero chance of spending any time alone in your society, you're very unlikely to have strong feelings of guilt every day, in part because I view guilt as defined—and there are lots of arguments, and you all know these better than I do, definitions about what guilt or shame really mean—but guilt is internalized, and the only person you're answering to is your own self. I view guilt as the cheapest form of punishment there is. It's self-punishment, and you prevent the group from having to punish you by either cutting yourself off from doing the act, to begin with, or paying some sort of penance afterward.
Shakespeare used the word "guilt" only 33 times. He used the word "shame" 344 times. So when we start thinking that it's just a Western thing, we should also note that it's even more modern than just being a Western phenomenon. My own particular interest is in environmental guilt, which I see this rising a lot, basically beginning in the 1980s, and I tie this to a switch from a system that was focused on changing a supply chain and production of chemicals or bad products, to more a demand-focused side strategy.
With that demand focus strategy, the focus on the individual, guilt was an easy low-hanging way of getting people to engage with the issues. Of course, there's a big threshold problem there. Because it's linked to a switch from the focus on supply to the focus on demand, it means that its power is very limited.
If you ask does this behavior scale, I would argue, no it doesn't scale. Does the U.S. feel guilty for doing something? Does BP feel guilty for the Gulf Oil spill? By the very definition of what guilt is—an internal regulation of one's own conscience—it implies, at least to me, that it does not scale to the group level; although, you have these trends, like survivor guilt or collective guilt, that call this into question.
I am interested in social problems, so maybe we should focus on the types of social emotions that might scale, and not just social emotions, but social tools, and that's why I got interested in shame as a tool, which is separate from shame as an emotion. We could all disagree here about what shame is as an emotion. A lot of people agree that it requires some sort of audience, but some don't. Some people argue it's a sense of your whole self, or as guilt is just based on the transgression itself. But I want to focus on shame as a tool, as a punishment, and situate it within a larger body of punishment.
I would like to distinguish shame, starting off, from transparency. A lot of people confuse them in the popular media, thinking that they're the same thing. Transparency exposes everyone in a population, regardless of their behavior, whereas shame exposes only a minority of players, and this is an important distinction. Both shame and transparency are obviously only interesting if the distribution is not uniform. So we have to have some variability in there; otherwise, we're really not interested in the behavior. I want to argue, too, and one of the points I make in some recent work, is that shame is more effective the larger those gaps are, not just between existing behaviors, but between what we think should happen and what is actually happening.