Cognitive Processing of Guilt and Shame

Publication Date

April 2015


Charles Sanislow




English (United States)


Guilt and shame are two distinct, negative, “self-conscious” moral emotions that have been extensively studied. However, literature focusing on the cognitive processes affected by guilt and shame is scarce. The present study seeks to fill a gap in the literature on the cognitive processing of guilt and shame by examining these emotions’ effect on attentional processing and long-term memory of guilt and shame affective descriptors in a college undergraduate student population (N = 35, 54% female). Participants’ vocal response times of guilt and shame affective words were measured when read for a second time (repeating) and thought back to (refreshing). Afterwards, participants completed a choice recognition task to test memory for previously seen words. Results suggest that guilt and shame affect distinct cognitive processes. In addition, a different pattern of results emerged when males and females were examined separately. Shame words were generally avoided with longer response times and lower recognition accuracy, but these results were more pronounced among female participants. Refresh processing enhanced the differences between shame and guilt response times and recognition accuracy in females, but not in males. Follow up behavioral studies with larger samples will be important in order to replicate these findings and have the potential to better clarify specific cognitive-neural processing of guilt and shame. This work has implications for the concept of moral injury in trauma related disorders.

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