Guilt-Shame-Fear spectrum of cultures

In cultural anthropology, the distinction between a guilt society (or guilt culture), shame society (also shame culture or honor-shame culture), and a fear society (or culture of fear) has been used to categorize different cultures. The differences can apply to how behavior is governed with respect to government laws, business rules, or social etiquette. This classification has been applied especially to so called "apollonian" societies, sorting them according to the emotions they use to control individuals (especially children) and maintaining social order, swaying them into norm obedience and conformity.[1]

  • In a guilt society, control is maintained by creating and continually reinforcing the feeling of guilt (and the expectation of punishment now or in the afterlife) for certain condemned behaviors. The guilt-innocence world view focuses on law and punishment. A person in this type of culture may ask, "Is my behavior fair or unfair?" This type of culture also emphasizes individual conscience.[2]
  • In a shame society, the means of control is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism. The shame-honor worldview seeks an "honor balance" and can lead to revenge dynamics. A person in this type of culture may ask, "Shall I look ashamed if I do X?" or "How people will look at me if I do Y?" Shame cultures are typically based on the concepts of pride and honour,[3] and appearances are what count.
  • In a fear society, control is kept by the fear of retribution. Fear-Power worldview focuses on physical dominance. A person in this culture may ask, "Will someone hurt me if I do this?"

The terminology were popularized by Ruth Benedict in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, who described American culture as a "guilt culture" and Japanese culture as a "shame culture".[4][5]

Though the same person may emphasize different considerations depending on the situation, government and business projects that bring together people from different types of cultures may experience problems.

Guilt societies

In a guilt society, the primary method of social control is the inculcation of feelings of guilt for behaviors that the individual believes to be undesirable. A prominent feature of guilt societies is the provision of sanctioned releases from guilt for certain behaviors, whether before or after the fact. There is opportunity in such cases for authority figures to derive power, monetary and/or other advantages, etc. by manipulating the conditions of guilt and the forgiveness of guilt.

Paul Hiebert characterizes the guilt society as follows:

Guilt is a feeling that arises when we violate the absolute standards of morality within us, when we violate our conscience. A person may suffer from guilt although no one else knows of his or her misdeed; this feeling of guilt is relieved by confessing the misdeed and making restitution. True guilt cultures rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behavior, not, as shame cultures do, on external sanctions. Guilt cultures emphasize punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order; shame cultures stress self-denial and humility as ways of restoring the social order. (Hiebert 1985, 213)

Geographical distribution

  • Guilt-Innocence: more associated with Abrahamic religions
  • Shame-Honour: more associated with Eastern religions
  • Fear-Power: more associated with animist and tribal societies


Anglo-Saxon England is particularly notable as a shame culture, and this trait survived even after its conversion to Christianity, which is typically a guilt culture.[6] Other examples of shame culture under Christianity are the cultures of Mexico,[2] Andalusia[3] and generally Christian Mediterranean societies.[7][8]


In China, the concept of shame is widely accepted[5][9] due to Confucian teachings. In Analects, Confucius is quoted as saying:

Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously.[10]


The society of traditional Japan was long held to be a good example of one in which shame is the primary agent of social control. The first book to cogently explain the workings of the Japanese society for the Western reader was The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict. This book was produced under less than ideal circumstances since it was written during the early years of World War II in an attempt to understand the people who had become such a powerful enemy of the West. Under the conditions of war, it was impossible to do field research in Japan.

Without being able to study in Japan, Benedict relied on newspaper clippings, histories, literature, films, and interviews of Japanese-Americans. Her studies came to conclusions about Japanese culture and society that are still widely criticized today, both in America and Japan.[11]


To the Roma, though living as local minorities in mostly Christian countries, the concept of lajav ("shame") is important, while the concept of bezax ("sin") does not have such significance.[12]

See also



  1. Silver, Alan Jews, Myth and History: A Critical Exploration of Contemporary Jewish Belief p.161
  2. De Mente, Boye Lafayette (1996) There's a Word for It in Mexico pp.79-80
  3. Lloyd-Jones, Hugh (1983) The Justice of Zeus
  4. Ezra F. Vogel, Foreword, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1989)
  5. Ying and Wong. "Cultural Models of Shame and Guilt". Cultural Influences.
  6. Robert E. Bjork, John D. Niles (1998) A Beowulf Handbook p.285 quotation:
    The introduction of a new state-sanctioned (or ruler-sanctioned) religion does not necessarily effect radical changes in a culture's basic structure of values. Not only Beowulf but the Maxims of the Exeter Book — "Dom bib selast" (Fame is best, 80) — and The Battle of Maldon attest to the vitality of the shame culture and its values in Anglo-Saxon England long after the Conversion. The theme of "worship" (i.e., Anglo-Saxon weordscipe [honor]) running through Malory's stories suggests that the ethos of the shame culture survived both the Conversion and the Conquest.
  7. Satlow, Michael L. (1995) Tasting the dish: rabbinic rhetorics of sexuality p.142
  8. Odd Magne Bakke (2001) "Concord and Peace" p.305
  9. Bedford, Olwen (2004). "Source:2014 Journal Citation Reports® (Thomson Reuters, 2015) The Individual Experience of Guilt and Shame in Chinese Culture". Culture & Psychology. 10 (1): 29–52. doi:10.1177/1354067X04040929.
  10. Confucius, The Analects
  11. Kent, Pauline (June 1999). "Japanese Perceptions of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword". Dialectical Anthropology. 24 (2): 181–192. doi:10.1023/a:1007082930663.
  12. Delia Grigore, Rromanipen-ul (rromani dharma) şi mistica familiei "Rromanipen (Rromani Dharma) and the Family Mystics" (2001, Salvaţi copiii, Bucharest)


  • Guilt, Shame and Power Worldviews, and the Gospel. Muller, Roland. Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door. Bloomington: Xlibris Corporation, 2001. Naylor, Mark. “Fear, Shame and Guilt.” Cross-Cultural Impact for the 21st Century. 1 August 2010. Web. 17 August 2014.
  • Guilt Shame and Power Worldviews and the Gospel published Feb 2-15. [As visited on Friday 30 December 2016].
  • Hiebert, Paul G., Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.

Further reading

  • Benedict, Ruth (1946). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.
  • Hiebert, Paul G. (1985). Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
  • Shannon, Christopher (1995). "A World Made Safe for Differences: Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword". American Quarterly. 47 (4): 659–680. JSTOR 2713370.
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