Neurobiological Underpinnings of Shame and Guilt: A Pilot fMRI Study

Petra Michl; Thomas Meindl; Franziska Meister; Christine Born; Rolf R. Engel; Maximilian Reiser; Kristina Hennig-Fast


Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014;9(2):150-157. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


In this study, a functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm originally employed by Takahashi et al. was adapted to look for emotion-specific differences in functional brain activity within a healthy German sample (N = 14), using shame- and guilt-related stimuli and neutral stimuli. Activations were found for both of these emotions in the temporal lobe (shame condition: anterior cingulate cortex, parahippocampal gyrus; guilt condition: fusiform gyrus, middle temporal gyrus). Specific activations were found for shame in the frontal lobe (medial and inferior frontal gyrus), and for guilt in the amygdala and insula. This is consistent with Takahashi et al.'s results obtained for a Japanese sample (using Japanese stimuli), which showed activations in the fusiform gyrus, hippocampus, middle occipital gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus. During the imagination of shame, frontal and temporal areas (e.g. middle frontal gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus) were responsive regardless of gender. In the guilt condition, women only activate temporal regions, whereas men showed additional frontal and occipital activation as well as a responsive amygdala. The results suggest that shame and guilt share some neural networks, as well as having individual areas of activation. It can be concluded that frontal, temporal and limbic areas play a prominent role in the generation of moral feelings.


Brain imaging studies have recently been employed to investigate the concept of morality and its related self-conscious emotions (e.g. Greene et al., 2001; Moll et al., 2002; Berthoz et al., 2006). The primary self-conscious emotions are shame, guilt, embarrassment and pride (Lewis, 2010). This article deals with two self-conscious emotions: shame and guilt. A further self-conscious emotion, embarrassment, is described as a less intensive form of shame (Lewis, 2010). In accord with this, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies thus far have found no differences between the two emotions. Following this, our description of studies of shame will encompass both shame and embarrassment. Shame and guilt can be differentiated theoretically: While the feeling of shame implicates the presence of other people; guilt can arise and persist without others (Takahashi et al., 2004). Compared with shame, the feeling of guilt is a super ordinate entity and generally interculturally important for living together (Ausubel, 1955). Guilt in particular is grounded in social relationships, and its prime function is to adjust interpersonal relationships (De Rivera, 1984; Caplovitz Barrett, 1995). For example, Baumeister et al. (1994) have argued that guilt serves relationship-enhancing functions by motivating people to treat partners well and to avoid interpersonal transgressions. Shame has also been perceived as one of the moral emotions that motivate prosaically behaviour (e.g. Emde and Oppenheim, 1995), and as moral emotion it is linked to the interests of other people (Haidt, 2003). However, in contrast to guilt, the case for shame as a moral emotion is less clear. In a series of recent studies, prosocial effects were found for guilt but not for shame (De Hooge et al., 2007). Guilt experiences increased prosaically behaviour in everyday situations and in a social dilemma, but these effects were not found when participants recalled experiences of shame (De Hooge et al., 2007).

Generally, from the neurobiological view, it is believed that a fronto-temporo-limbic network is involved in the generation of emotions. Research in the neurobiology of social and moral emotions suggests that the medial orbitofrontal gyrus plays an important role (Moll et al., 2002). Other important structures thought to be involved in these emotions include the medial frontal gyrus, the posterior cingular gyrus (Greene et al., 2001), the anterior temporal lobe, the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and subcortical structures, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus (Moll et al., 2005).

Additional findings in the areas of theory of mind, empathy, social cognition and self-referential cognition provide important insights into neural networks also crucial for the emotions of shame and guilt. The anterior paracingulate cortex, superior temporal sulci and the temporal poles are thought to house networks enabling people to take on perspectives of others (Gallagher and Frith, 2003). Networks for emotional empathy are thought to be located within the superior temporal and inferior frontal areas, as well as the limbic system (Carr et al., 2003). Finally, areas related to self-referential thoughts are postulated to be controlled by cortical midline structures, e.g. the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex (Northoff and Bermpohl, 2004).

So far, activity of the neural system for self-conscious emotions and their underlying appraisals has been localized to frontal and temporal areas, as well as to the amygdala and cingulate gyrus. Frontal areas are associated with the generation of emotions, such as embarrassment and guilt, temporal areas are linked with the capacity to make inferences about the mind of others and knowledge of social norms. The amygdala plays an important role in marking one's own emotions and the emotions of others, taking into account knowledge about social norms (Adolphs, 2003; Beer, 2007). In processing the emotion of embarrassment, convergent findings of frontal, temporal and limbic brain participation have been provided by lesion and imaging studies (Devinsky et al., 1982; Blair and Cipolotti, 2000; Berthoz et al., 2002; Beer et al., 2003, 2006; Ruby and Decety, 2004; Takahashi et al., 2004). Functional brain imaging studies on processing the moral emotion of guilt support the idea of an associated diffuse activation in frontal and temporal regions (Shin et al., 2000; Takahashi et al., 2004), but to our knowledge, only one study has investigated the differences in embarrassment and guilt with fMRI (Takahashi et al., 2004).

Takahashi et al. (2004) directly compared imagination of embarrassment and guilt, measuring associated functional brain activity with fMRI and using sentences evoking shame and guilt. Their results indicate overlapping activity for both conditions in the medial prefrontal cortex, the left posterior STS and the visual cortex. For embarrassment, they found a distinctly greater activation in the right temporal cortex and hippocampus relative to guilt. Thus, the processing of embarrassment seemed to be more complex, more self-conscious and more memory-related than the processing of guilt in the Japanese sample.

We predict that German and Japanese people differ in their experience of shame and guilt, owing to certain critical cultural differences between the two cultures: First, the expression of self-conscious, moral feelings of shame or guilt will inter alia vary, depending not only on social contexts (Tangney, 1992) but also in behaviour repertoires or in regulation processes (Mesquita and Frijda, 1992). In addition, there are findings, specifically contrasting American and Japanese people, suggesting that culture plays a role in determining the kind of situations in which mixed emotions, that is, emotions with both positive and negative feelings, are experienced. For example, Japanese feel more mixed emotions in positive situations than Americans (Miyamoto et al., 2010). Japanese have a stronger self-critical focus arising from an enhanced need for positive self-regard (Heine et al., 1999). Overall, it seems to make a difference if these emotions are measured in individualistic or collectivistic cultures, because of the different stages of development and socialization (Wallbott and Scherer, 1998).

To assess shame and guilt in a German sample, this study adopted Takahashi et al.'s (2004) experimental fMRI paradigm.

Referring to the empirically verified differences at the psychological level of experience of self-conscious emotions between Japanese people and those of a Western country people (e.g. the USA: Heine et al., 1999; Miyamoto et al., 2010), we predict in parallel observable differences at the level of functional neurobiology.

Since there were as many men as women included in this study, the authors took the opportunity to carry out an exploratory analysis of gender-related activation patterns, because there are very few gender studies on emotions (e.g. Schneider et al., 2000) and no single study investigating gender differences in shame and guilt.

In addition to brain activation data, behavioural parameters on shame and guilt are assessed through self-report questionnaires.