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 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. The 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 Christianity and Judaism
  • Shame-Honour: more associated with Islam and 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, 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. ^ a b De Mente, Boye Lafayette (1996) There's a Word for It in Mexico pp.79-80
  3. ^ a b Lloyd-Jones, Hugh (1983) The Justice of Zeus
  4. ^ Ezra F. Vogel, Foreword, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1989)
  5. ^ a b 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 [1] 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.
Bedouin systems of justice

Systems of justice among the Bedouin are varied among the tribes. A number of these systems date from pre-Islamic times, and hence do not follow Sharia (Islamic religious law). Many of these systems are falling into disuse as more and more Bedouins follow the Sharia or national penal codes for dispensing justice.

Capital punishment

Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a government-sanctioned practice whereby a person is killed by the state as a punishment for a crime. The sentence that someone be punished in such a manner is referred to as a death sentence, whereas the act of carrying out the sentence is known as an execution. Crimes that are punishable by death are known as capital crimes or capital offences, and they commonly include offences such as murder, mass murder, terrorism, treason, espionage, offenses against the State, such as attempting to overthrow government, piracy, drug trafficking, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, but may include a wide range of offences depending on a country. Etymologically, the term capital (lit. "of the head", derived via the Latin capitalis from caput, "head") in this context alluded to execution by beheading.Fifty-six countries retain capital punishment, 106 countries have completely abolished it de jure for all crimes, eight have abolished it for ordinary crimes (while maintaining it for special circumstances such as war crimes), and 28 are abolitionist in practice.Capital punishment is a matter of active controversy in several countries and states, and positions can vary within a single political ideology or cultural region. In the European Union, Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union prohibits the use of capital punishment. The Council of Europe, which has 47 member states, has sought to abolish the use of the death penalty by its members absolutely, through Protocol 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, this only affects those member states which have signed and ratified it, and they do not include Armenia, Russia, and Azerbaijan.

The United Nations General Assembly has adopted, in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014, non-binding resolutions calling for a global moratorium on executions, with a view to eventual abolition. Although most nations have abolished capital punishment, over 60% of the world's population live in countries where the death penalty is retained, such as China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, among all mostly Islamic countries, as is maintained in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka. China executes more people than all other countries combined.

Culture of fear

Popularized by the American sociologist Barry Glassner, culture of fear (or climate of fear) is the concept that people may incite fear in the general public to achieve political or workplace goals through emotional bias.A largely unrelated concept in sociology is the "fear culture" on the Guilt-Shame-Fear spectrum of cultures.

Culture of honor (Southern United States)

The traditional culture of the Southern United States has been called a "culture of honor", that is, a culture where people avoid intentionally offending others, and maintain a reputation for not accepting improper conduct by others. A theory as to why the American South had or may have this culture is an assumed regional belief in retribution to enforce one's rights and deter predation against one’s family, home and possessions. The concept was tested by social scientists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen in their book Culture of Honor and repopularized by a discussion in Chapter Six of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

Honor codes of the Bedouin

Sharaf and ird are Bedouin honor codes. Along with hospitality and courage/bravery, it is one of the Bedouin aspects of ethics. Bedouin systems of justice are based on these honor codes, although the codes are falling into disuse as more Bedouins accept sharia or national penal codes as the means for dispensing justice.


Honour (or honor in American English; either spelling in Canadian English) is the idea of a bond between an individual and a society as a quality of a person that is both of social teaching and of personal ethos, that manifests itself as a code of conduct, and has various elements such as valor, chivalry, honesty, and compassion. It is an abstract concept entailing a perceived quality of worthiness and respectability that affects both the social standing and the self-evaluation of an individual or institution such as a family, school, regiment or nation. Accordingly, individuals (or institutions) are assigned worth and stature based on the harmony of their actions with a specific code of honour, and the moral code of the society at large.

Samuel Johnson, in his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), defined honour as having several senses, the first of which was "nobility of soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness".

This sort of honour derives from the perceived virtuous conduct and personal integrity of the person endowed with it. On the other hand, Johnson also defined honour in relationship to "reputation" and "fame"; to "privileges of rank or birth", and as "respect" of the kind which "places an individual socially and determines his right to precedence". This sort of honour is often not so much a function of moral or ethical excellence, as it is a consequence of power. Finally, with respect to sexuality, honour has traditionally been associated with (or identical to) "chastity" or "virginity", or in case of married men and women, "fidelity". Some have argued that honour should be seen more as a rhetoric, or set of possible actions, than as a code.

Jewish guilt

Jewish guilt is the supposed guilt felt by some Jews. Currently, Jewish guilt is often a source of Jewish humor, but sometimes leads to self-hatred among some Jews.


Revenge is a form of justice enacted in the absence or defiance of the norms of formal law and jurisprudence. Often, revenge is defined as being a harmful action against a person or group in response to a grievance, be it real or perceived. It is used to punish a wrong by going outside the law. Francis Bacon described revenge as a kind of "wild justice" that "does... offend the law [and] putteth the law out of office." Primitive justice or retributive justice is often differentiated from more formal and refined forms of justice such as distributive justice and divine judgment.

The Arab Mind

The Arab Mind is a non-fiction cultural psychology book by cultural anthropologist Raphael Patai, who also wrote The Jewish Mind. The book advocates a tribal-group-survival explanation for the driving factors behind Arab culture. It was first published in 1973, and later revised in 1983. A 2007 reprint was further "updated with new demographic information about the Arab world".The book came to public attention in 2004, after investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, writing for The New Yorker revealed that the book was "the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior" to the effect that it was the source of the idea held by the US military officials responsible for the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib scandal that "Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation".

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