People should think twice before saying the words 'shame on you' as they may end up harming an individual's sense of value and self-worth, researchers have claimed.
Thomas Scheff, professor emeritus of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, said that in modernity, shame is the most obstructed and hidden emotion and therefore the most destructive.
When hidden, he continued, shame causes serious struggles not only for individuals but also for groups.
According to Scheff a society that fosters individualism provides a ripe breeding ground for the emotion of shame because people are encouraged to "go it alone, no matter the cost to relationships," he said.
People learn to act as if they were complete in themselves and independent of others and this feature has constructive and creative sides, but it has at least two other implications: alienation and the hiding of shame, he said.
Scheff noted that while shame is no less prevalent now than in previous years or decades or generations, it is more hidden.
In exploring the connection between shame and aggression, Scheff cites research conducted by sociologist Neil Websdale, author of "Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Styles of 211 Killers".
Familicide, the act of one spouse killing the other as well as their children and often himself or herself, stems from unacknowledged shame, Scheff said.
The most interesting thing about the study is there's a group of non-angry people - a minority - who lose their job and feel humiliated. So they pretend they're going to work every day but are really planning the killing. Websdale describes them as 'civic respectable', he explained.
Scheff continued saying that our civilization believes that one is not to be angry or ashamed, but the problem with that kind of thinking, however, is that shame is the basis of morality.
Scheff explained that you can't have a moral society without shame because it provides the weight for morality.
So how does one resolve hidden shame? The answer, according to Scheff, is to have a good laugh at yourself or at the universe or at your circumstances, but not at other people.
The study is published in the current issue of the journal Cultural Sociology.