Many Americans are more worried about their reputation than their conscience.
They worry less about guilt and fear and more about avoiding shame, according to a new study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research.
Shame has become particularly powerful in American culture in the internet age, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. A single mistake or embarrassing moment posted on social media can ruin a person’s life.
“What’s our biggest cultural fear?” he asked. “Shame.”
McConnell added, “What’s surprising is not that personal freedom, ambition, and doing the right thing are valued by Americans. It’s that risk to our reputation is what matters most.”
Shaming has been a part of American life since the days of “The Scarlet Letter.” Set among the Puritans, the novel tells the story of Hester Prynne, a young mother forced to wear a scarlet “A” after committing adultery, considered a crime at the time. But Americans gave up on public shaming of criminals in the 1830s, according to journalist Jon Ronson, author of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.”
Since then, Americans have been more concerned about issues like guilt over wrongdoing, said McConnell. That’s shaped how churches have presented their faith to the public, he said.
McConnell said LifeWay Research wanted to know if guilt is still a major issue for Americans. That might affect how Christians talk about their faith, he said, since Christianity also addresses needs such as shame and fear.
“We wanted to know: are churches addressing the issues Americans care about most?” said McConnell.
Researchers asked 1,000 Americans three questions to discover their feelings about fear, shame, guilt and other issues.
- Which of these feelings do you seek to avoid the most?
- Which of these desires is strongest in your life?
- Which of these directions do you value the most?
Thirty-eight percent of Americans say they avoid shame the most. Thirty-one percent say guilt, while 30 percent say fear.
Education and age play a role in what feelings Americans avoid. Those with graduate degrees (44 percent) are more likely to avoid shame than those with high school diplomas or less (34 percent). Americans ages 25 to 34 avoid guilt (37 percent) more than those 55 and older (27 percent). Middle-aged Americans—those 35 to 54— are the most likely age group to worry about shame at 44 percent.
Nones—those who claim no religious identity—avoid guilt (35 percent) more than those who are religious (30 percent). Those who are religious avoid shame (39 percent) more than nones (33 percent). Those from non-Christian faiths are most likely to avoid shame (48 percent).
McConnell wonders whether Americans see shame as a bigger threat to their reputation or self-worth than guilt.
“Guilt says, I deserve to be punished,” he said. “But shame says, I am worthless.”
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