Shame And Embarrassment


What are the differences between shame and embarrassment? I discuss the views of Zahavi and raise some questions.

I examine Zahavi’s paper on Shame [D Zahavi, Shame and the Exposed Self, in J Webber (ed.), Reading Sartre: On Phenomenology and Existentialism, London: Routledge, 2010] which deals with shame as discussed in the literature. Zahavi comments on analysis by Lewis, Scheler, Taylor, Harre and Mead. [Citations to follow at the appropriate point in the text.]

A principal difficulty throughout is that of distinguishing shame from embarrassment. I will show that none of the commentators discussed by Zahavi or Zahavi himself have adequate proposals to do this.

Protective Shame

Scheler [M Scheler, Schriften aus dem Nachlass, Band I: Zur Ethik und Erkenntnislehre, Muenchen: Francke Verlag, 1957. (Originally published 1913.)] claims that blushing virgins have `protective shame’. This means that on the assumption that chastity is a virtue, the shame of the virgins when the topic of copulation is in some way brought to their attention will be of assistance in maintaining that chastity. “Protective embarrassment” could also do that though. So this claim does not provide a distinguishing test.

Zahavi reports the claim made by Scheler that shame is a precondition for erotic interest in others. This could valorize it since it would be necessary for the survival of the species. Such a valorization could provide a distinction between shame and embarrassment because embarrassment either does not have value or would have a different mechanism for valorization. The mechanism proposed by Scheler for shame is that the shame associated with auto-eroticism leads the sexual impulses to turn outwards.


Photo by Pixabay on

But we would need to have assigned a value to such survival for the link to convey any value to shame. To some extent, erotic impulses form part of the factors leading population to increase — after all, evolution has `designed’ those impulses to precisely that end. If population growth exacerbates problems like global warming, then we would have further reason to assign a negative value to shame if the link claimed by Scheler holds. Any attempt to add positive value also brings with it negative value. This complexity combined with the absence of a valorization scheme for embarrassment makes it unlikely that we can find a clean distinction between shame and embarrassment from this source.

Duration-Based Distinction Between Shame And Embarrassment

Taylor argues for a duration-based distinction between shame and embarrassment. She holds that embarrassment persists only as long as the embarrassing situation. Shame persists beyond shameful events. But why would a memory of an embarrassing or shameful episode not provoke embarrassment or shame again on being recalled? Indeed, the ability to recall the emotion which was a fundamental aspect of the phenomenology of the event, is constitutive of having adequately recalled the event at all. The recalled emotion could potentially be in an attenuated form, but that would suffice to defeat Taylor’s claim.

Also, Taylor needs to explain why I can intelligibly make statements such as “I am embarrassed that I used to like such terrible music in college.” That’s because of the significant lapse of time between the state of affairs causing the embarrassment and the embarrassment itself. Her response will presumably involve the claim that the “embarrassing situation” in this case is not the long-past enjoyment of now unfashionable music. It is my current realization that in fact that music was not of the highest quality. But why is that embarrassing? Does it not on the contrary represent an admirable and not embarrassing improvement in my taste?


In addition, psychological research by Modigliani [A Modigliani, Embarrassment and Embarrassability, Sociometry, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Sep., 1968), pp. 313-326] shows that some people are more prone to embarrassment than others, and that this proneness is related to feelings of inadequacy.

We know that feelings of inadequacy, or low self-esteem problems, are relatively stable. Otherwise, people would not seek counseling to address these problems. This means that embarrassability must also be a stable parameter. And if that is so, then Taylor will need to explain how it is possible for some people to be more embarrassable than others. After all, embarrassment does not persist beyond the embarrassing episode. Can it be because highly embarrassable people experience more embarrassing episodes? Or that they experience a higher intensity of embarrassment for some base-line level of embarrassment stimulus?

Examples Of Shame

Zahavi gives five examples purportedly of shame. They are: being exposed as a plagiarist, one’s friend observing the racism of one’s relative, wearing unfashionable clothes, being rejected for a job one expected to receive, not wearing make-up. This illustrates the prevailing predicament. All of these are also embarrassment and we would have no difficulty accepting a spread between the two emotions, if indeed two they be.

One cannot be ashamed of events for which one is not responsible. The racism example looks like it could be a counter-example to this. It is clear that no-one can take a great deal of responsibility for the political views of relations. But it might be the case that the shame derives from a failure to prevent the event from taking place. Left unspoken in Zahavi’s example is the possibility that the friend with one is in fact a member of an ethnic minority. They were the target of the racism. There, one would certainly feel responsible for having allowed the situation to take place.

Zahavi also claims that it is implausible that any of these scenarios could have happened when alone. But does that commit him also to saying there cannot be shameful memories? He may have a counter. One could perhaps feel shame on recalling a shameful memory not in virtue of that recall but in virtue of the recalled possibility of further exposure of the remembered episode in the future to other observers.

Are We Alone With Our Memories?

We then have to decide to what extent we are `alone’ with our memories. Would someone irrevocably marooned alone on a desert island have shameful memories? Zahavi has to say no. But this seems implausible. If the castaway committed heinous crimes of which he now repents, Zahavi’s position appears dramatically implausible. So Zahavi’s various claims on shame are questionable and do not provide a distinction between shame and embarrassment.

Moral Breaches Vs Conventional Breaches

Zahavi discusses Harre’s claim [R Harré, Embarrassment: A conceptual Analysis, in W Crozier (ed.) Shyness and Embarrassment: Perspectives from social psychology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990] that the distinction between shame and embarrassment is that in the former case, others see our moral breach while in the latter case, others see our breach of convention.

Zahavi criticizes this for being too neat: it has too clean a division between moral and conventional infractions. This crticism has force, not least because the purported distinction assumes that morality and convention are separate. Against that, many philosophers argue that in fact morality is merely conventional. A plethora of citations could be given to illustrate this: I will restrict myself to Sedgwick’s [P Sedgwick, Nietzsche: the key concepts, Abingdon: Routledge, 2009, p. 100] observation on Nietzsche: `[t]he claim that morality was, in the first place, simply obedience to customs and no more is fruitful’.

Shame And Embarrassment: Decreases In Self-Esteem

Zahavi proposes an alternative distinction. Shame is unlike embarrassment in that only the former is accompanied by a decrease in self-esteem. But embarrassment is undoubtedly not a positive emotion. If we contemplate a case of extreme, overwhelming, all-encompassing embarrassment, is it likely that it would have no negative effect on our view of ourselves? Would we not think the mere liability to feel such an emotion to such a paralyzing extent reflected badly on ourselves? Not least because our feelings might prevent us from acting in productive ways.

In any case, Zahavi is here making a false empirical claim. Modigliani relates susceptibility to embarrassment to inadequacy, describing how `the individual may suffer the relatively severe loss of situational-self-esteem associated with embarrassment by failing to manifest situationally appropriate demeanor’. Situational-self-esteem is that element of self-esteem that derives from behaving appropriately; we are all aware of the perverse tendency to giggle at funerals.

Transiency Of Self-Esteem Decreases

However, Modigliani allows that the effect may be transient; the embarrassed individual `is likely to find that his general self-esteem has been little affected by the experience’, [ibid., p. 315] but Zahavi still has questions to answer. These questions are made only more pointed by the examples of embarrassing situations given by Modigliani: `e.g. a slip of the tongue, a revelation of negative self-information by others, an inability to carry off situationally relevant tasks’ [ibid., p. 316], as all of these are clearly embarrassment and not shame and all of them will indubitably cause a decrease in self-esteem. How could they not? They are failings.

The objection that Modigliani has himself confused shame and embarrassment is scarcely available to those arguing that the self-esteem decrement is definitional of shame. They must also claim that it is not a definition that is widely known.

Shame And Embarrassment: Physiological Stress Responses

But some data are worse for Zahavi. Physiological stress responses are associated with both shame and embarrassment. Moreover, these are similar for both emotions. Lewis and Ramsay [M Lewis and D Ramsay, Cortisol Response to Embarrassment and Shame, Child Development Vol. 73, No. 4 (Jul. – Aug., 2002), pp. 1034-1045] measure cortisol levels in children that have been placed in embarrassing and shameful situations.

Cortisol is a stress hormone. [G Baker et al, Stress, Cortisol Concentrations, And Lymphocyte Subpopulations, British Medical Journal, Vol. 290, No. 6479 (May 11, 1985), p. 1393] Lewis and Ramsay found that `cortisol response scores for the children who showed [….] embarrassment and for the children who showed shame’ were very similar `indicating that the relation to cortisol response was comparable for the two emotions’. If the stress is not related to a decrease in self-esteem, then where is it from?

Shame And Embarrassment: Gender

In addition, we can challenge Zahavi from a gender perspective. Lewis and Ramsay note that “boys show more exposure embarrassment than girls did at 22 months.” And, “girls consistently show more shame than do boys.” To be fair, the authors also note that the embarrassment difference fades by 35 months.

Nevertheless, Zahavi must now commit to the claim that girls have lower self-esteem than boys. That claim may have some currency, but as Gentile [K Gentile, Review: [untitled], NWSA Journal, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 481-483] notes in a review of work by Kenway and Willis [J Kenway and S Willis, Hearts and Minds: Self-Esteem and the Schooling of Girls, New York: Falmer Press, 1990], `self-esteem studies […] surprisingly, find no empirical evidence to support the wide-spread notion that girls are deficient in self-esteem’.

Gang Members

The other side of the distinction that Zahavi needs is that shame always causes a decrease in self-esteem. But imagine some group whose members gain approbation within the group from acts that non-members of the group would call shameful. For example, for a prospective recruit, `murder would form part of a gang initiation rite’. [BBC Reporter, Race killer’s prison boast, London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 19 February 1999] No doubt the recruit would not feel shame. They could indeed feel an increase in self-esteem at becoming a gang member.

That is fine for Zahavi. But he needs to explain the sequence of events if subsequently the gang member repents of his actions. That would involve shame caused by a change in the accepted relevant group of evaluators. It is now wider society rather than the gang.

Zahavi needs this penitent to feel a decrease in self-esteem. But would he not on the contrary feel an increase? He has now realized his errors and become rehabilitated in wider society.

Zahavi might counter that the self-esteem increment derives from the rehabilitation. The shame comes from the belated realisation that the original action was in fact shameful. But then he will need an analysis that separates two elements that at least in this story are inseparable. The gang member cannot have the rehabilitation if there is nothing requiring rehabilitation.

Shame And Embarrassment: Remembered Differently

In support of his line, Zahavi notes a remark he ascribes to G Strawson. Past episodes of embarrassment can be retailed because they are funny. Past episodes of shame can’t though. These continue to be shameful and will remain hidden.

This is questionable. Although there are many examples of people telling stories about situations in which they were embarrassed at the time, is it really the case that no-one ever tells such a story about a shameful situation, no matter how long afterwards? Zahavi may counter that it must be an amusing story, but even that seems possible.

There is a story in my family relating to a wartime exploit involving my grandfather, a large mobile anti-aircraft gun and the destruction of civilian property. This would doubtless have been an occasion for shame rather than embarrassment at the time, but the story was nevertheless extant during the life of my grandfather. Zahavi has a further counter about time expired, but his defence would then be ad hoc. Since the exercise aimed to construct a clean distinction, it will have failed if it relies on vague concepts like `sufficient’ elapsed time.

Shame And The Self

Zahavi discusses Mead [G Mead, Mind, Self and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962] in the context of attempting to elucidate what shame tells us about the self. Zahavi’s own view is that `[t]he shamed self is a more complex (and complicated) self than the experiential self’, meaning that shame is necessarily social and experience is not.

If this is a potential distinction between shame and embarrassment, then again, Zahavi has empirical problems. As Tangney et al [J Tangney and D Mashek, Shame, Guilt, and Embarrassment: Will the Real Emotion Please Stand Up?, Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2005), pp. 44-48] show, embarrassment is more socially oriented than shame: `when embarrassed, people were more likely to feel that others were looking’; moreover, `the shamed individual feels isolated from others’.

Zahavi describes Mead’s view that self-consciousness is a by-product of becoming aware of others; the idea being that others are initially more salient to the infant than the infant is to itself. They would then become aware of themselves — `passing the mirror test’ — and note the physical similarity between themselves and others as an intermediate step to postulating that they are mentally similar to others, once they also observe that others seem to have mental states and desires.

Shame And Embarrassment: Theory Of Mind

The standard — but not universally held — view in psychological research is that infants develop a theory of mind between the ages of three and five. [K Riggs (ed.), Children’s Reasoning And The Mind}, Hove: Psychology Press Ltd., 2000] Prior to this point, they fail the false belief test: they assume that if they know something then everyone does. Given that, if Mead is correct that self-consciousness requires awareness of others, then there could be no self-consciousness in infants prior to the ages of three to five. This would support my previous contention that the evidence for phenomenal awareness in infants is slimmer than Zahavi supposes.

Mead holds that before self-consciousness, feelings would be experienced as part of the environment. That also supports my view that infants do not have phenomenal experience because otherwise we would have to say that `there is something it is like for them’ and that that something is `external to them’.

See Also:

Is “Justice” A Concept For Angels Or For Men? Review of Nagel: Equality and Partiality

Biased Non-Arguments: Nagel Equality And Partiality Chs. 1, 2

Merleau Ponty’s Phenomenology: What Is It And How Cogent Is It?

Persons Do Not Have Identity


Shame And The Exposed Self by Zahavi

1. Shame and self-reflection

Aim of paper: what does shame tell us about the self?
Response to Lewis monograph accepting standard model

  • six basic primary emotions not self-referential
  • more complex emotions inc. shame held by Lewis to be self-referential
  • Zahavi disputes this with a dual argument

1). Lewis: mental states only become conscious when taken as objects of introspection
Zahavi says this commits Lewis to the `absurd’ claim that animals and infants lack phenomenal experience
But is this so absurd? We only think the opposite because of behavior — heuristics also an explanation — or do we want to say that sugar-eating bacteria climb the sugar gradient because it makes them happy?

2). emotions necessarily involve appraisals of what is significant for us; I experience fear of what might happen to me
But does this not commit Zahavi to denying that I can be joyful about the performance of the England cricket team — or will he just say that is also about me?

So Zahavi’s claim will be that all emotions self-referential; but primary and secondary are self-referential in different ways

Also criticizes Lewis’s claim that self-reflection is key by noting Darwin’s remark that blushes necessarily involve `thinking what others think of us’

2. Others in mind

Photo by Stokpic on

Focus on the account in Being And Nothingness; Sartre claims:

  • consciousness necessarily intentional (Husserl, Brentano’s thesis)
  • mode of being of consciousness is for-itself
  • self-consciousness arises when self is own intentional object
  • Schopenhauer-type `eye cannot see itself’ argument
  • leads to subject/object split, but also either an infinite regress or non-conscious starting point
  • Sartre’s solution is to posit pre-reflective self-consciousness
  • shame: form of intentional self-consciousness based on The Other
  • I feel ashamed of myself before The Other
  • The Other constitutes myself as object; this self-as-object is the object of the shame and is therefore a precondition for shame
  • shame arises irrespective of whether evaluation is positive or negative
    We need to remember here that the word `shame’ can, like `nausea’ or `anguish’, be a term of art for Sartre

anguish: fear of the freedom to which we are condemned
nausea: the `taste’ of facticity — which is the for-itself’s necessary connection with the in-itself
neither of these look much like common usage but can perhaps be traced back to or founded on them

The Other makes me aware of myself as in itself cf. bad faith where I disingenuously try to see my for-itself as in-itself
I have in some way become dependent on The Other for (part of) my very existence

3. Varieties of shame

Photo by Ingo Joseph on

Does shame have any use? Is it valuable? Can we give it any value without assuming that social conformity is valuable?
Alternative accounts considered and compared to Sartre


  • shame has different types; Sartre’s account allows only for one
  • account looks somewhat dated (Germany, 1957)
  • blushing virgins have `protective shame’
  • presence of shame indicates a level of self-respect, presumably because it indicates that one has fallen short of certain standards
  • assumes we know what is right after the event when we did not beforehand
  • rejects Sartre’s notion that shame necessarily involves others
  • But Sartre allows that The Other can be a house or a noise or indeed not present cf. Lucy’s `fictitious evaluator’
  • Apparently Scheler claims that shame is necessary for erotic interest in others so is a good thing because necessary for survival of the species – but why do we want that?


Zahavi says Taylor challenges Sartre for claiming that shame entails observer criticality
Zahavi rightly observes that Sartre cannot be challenged on this because Sartre denies it
Zahavi could also note that Sartre does not need an observer
contrast with embarrassment, which is coextensive with embarrassing situations; shame held to persist beyond shameful events
This seems questionable
Zahavi gives five examples purportedly of shame: plagiarism, racism of a relative, unfashionable, job rejection, not wearing make-up
Many of these look more like embarrassment
Zahavi also claims that it is implausible that any of these scenarios could have happened when alone — does that commit him also to saying there cannot be shameful memories?

Seidler held to have similar view to Sartre: “Das Schamsubjekt ist `ganz bei sich’ und gleichzeitig `ausser sich’ ” — The subject of shame is simultaneously wholly within himself but also outside of himself
Other jolts us out of Heideggerean absorbtion in our projects and we are faced with the facticity of our bodies: they become `present-at-hand’
Zahavi agrees with Sartre that no actual Other is required for shame
But criticizes a `negative […] characterization’ of our dealings with others

Room to argue here that Zahavi makes insufficient allowance for terms of art; also a certain inevitability in Sartre’s picture may eliminate value-judgements

Lewis held to deny that public failure relevant to shame
Model requires perceived [failure, responsibility therefor and damaged self]
Zahavi says this cannot allow a differentiation from e.g. self-criticism

Perhaps these items can overlap?

Discussion of Harre’s distinction between shame and embarrassment

others see our moral breach vs others see our convention breach
Zahavi criticizes this for being too neat and for having too clean a division between moral and conventional infractions
Zahavi says we can be ashamed of one’s red hair, weight or skin color

Hair: can we be ashamed of things we cannot control?
Weight: maybe if this is or could be our fault — claims about `fat genes’
Maybe, if this means e.g. sunburn

Zahavi’s diagnosis is to link shame but not embarrassment with self-esteem decrement
notes a Strawson (G) remark that past episodes of embarrassment can be funny but not past shame

This does look like a clean distinction

4. Back to self

Sartre’s picture of the self is that it is immediately given but lacks substance; we create an ego ‘in front of us’ because we think that something must exist to have the experiences we have
Zahavi’s criticism is that this zero-dimensional point is inadequate to accommodate the complexity of shame as revealed by his discussion
Sartre will respond that if we have the ability to create an ego, we can also give it imaginary characteristics
Mead: self-consciousness is a by-product of becoming aware of others; links to developmental milestones and theory of mind
Mead: prior to self-consciousness, feelings would be experienced as part of the environment
Zahavi says Sartre would disagree with this and would claim that there is primitive self-consciousness from the start
An argument is needed for this however; Sartre may claim that primitive self-consciousness is `prior’ (fundamental in those who have adult self-consciousness) without it being `prior’ (an earlier stage such that infants must have it)
Is shame essentially human because language is required and is it culturally mediated? Related terms in Chinese number 113
Sartre: language expresses my being-for-others in an original way because it gives the self-as-object its characteristics; these are not the characteristics of the self-as-subject

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Shame vs Embarrassment: The Distinction In The Literature

Bad Arguments Against Gay Marriage

The Opposition Of Value Systems

Photo by Tookapic on