Shame, along with guilt, embarrassment and pride, is a moral emotion. Shame is the emotion we experience when we discover a defect in ourselves. The expression of shame is a submissive response. It is an acknowledgment to others of the defect and the decline in our status that results from the defect. This submissive response shows to others our attempts to conform, improve ourselves, apologize, and make amends.
Early experts in psychopathy documented that the absence of shame is part of the disorder. According to Dr. Cleckley, author of The Mask of Sanity, psychopaths are incapable of feeling shame. Because they do not feel shame, they blame everyone else for their problems. “The psychopath apparently cannot accept substantial blame for the various misfortunes which befall him and which he brings down upon others,” Cleckley says. “Whether judged in the light of his conduct, of his attitude, or of material elicited in psychiatric examination, he [the psychopath] shows almost no sense of shame.“
More recent researchers also recognize the fact that psychopaths accept no personal blame. Item 16 on the “gold-standard” psychopathy measure, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist–Revised (PCL–R), assesses a failure to accept responsibility for actions. Item 16 of the PCL–R identifies “an individual who is unable or unwilling to accept personal responsibility for his own actions (both criminal and non-criminal) or for the consequences of his actions.” Instead of accepting responsibility for his/her actions, the psychopath produces “some excuse for his/her behavior, including rationalizing and placing the blame on others” (Hare, 2003).
I have emphasized that the lack of shame and consequent blaming behavior of sociopaths and psychopaths is caused by their excessive dominance motivation. Sociopaths and psychopaths live for power and control. As dominants, they cannot afford to admit any weakness or error, not even to themselves. I want to share with you the results of two recent studies that demonstrate that a lack of shame correlates with clinical measures of sociopathy and psychopathy.
When I searched the scientific literature for studies of shame and psychopathy, I happily found researchers who not only investigated shame, but who developed a “social rank” theory of psychopathy. This social rank theory is very similar to my social dominance theory of sociopathy. Drs. Morrison and Gilbert studied men in a British prison. They found that sociopaths and psychopaths are more reactive to social rank challenge than are non-psychopaths. They related this sensitivity to challenge to the observed lack of shame in psychopaths. These authors also described two distinct groups with regard to shame and social dominance. Psychopaths feel dominant and believe themselves to be entitled to a certain special treatment. According to the authors, “(Psychopaths) assume that they are dominant and expect others to treat them as such.” If not treated as dominant, psychopaths feel socially threatened and behave accordingly toward “subordinates” who fail to show appropriate deference.
A second group of sociopaths who did not score as high on psychopathy measures, but who were still disordered, was also identified. This group secretly perceive themselves as relatively inferior in social rank and have lower self-esteem. However, these sociopaths are resentful of their perceived status, strive for dominance, and thus are sensitive to threats both from others perceived as dominant and others perceived as subordinate. This study is important because it shows that pathologic narcissism or extremely inflated self esteem is present in the most dangerous sociopaths who are identified as psychopaths by Dr. Hare. In fact, the major difference between sociopathy as described by The American Psychiatric Association and psychopathy as described by Dr. Robert Hare is the presence of extreme grandiosity and narcissism in psychopaths.
In another study, Drs. Campbel and Elison assessed psychopathy traits in a group of 286 college students (111 men and 175 women). You might wonder how common these traits are in college students. Of the 286 students, 52 scored in the high end on the psychopathy test. This means that about 1 of 6 people you meet in college has significant psychopathic traits. These traits do not define them as “psychopaths” by Dr. Hare’s criteria, since criminality is a requirement for the PCL-R, but they do identify individuals who have dangerous commonalities with Dr. Hare’s psychopaths.
Drs. Campbell and Elison found that people high in trait psychopathy have no shame. These researchers looked at five responses to shame: attack other, avoidance, attack self, withdrawal and adaptive. Psychopathy was specifically associated with the tendency to attack others or to withdraw in response to situations that would normally elicit shame.
Understanding that the lack of shame and the presence of blaming and withdrawal behavior in response to shame situations is part of sociopathy/psychopathy is important. Many people ask how they can tell if a friend or lover is sociopathic enough to be dangerous. I share these findings with you because I think shame can be used to identify people who are safe to be with. A psychologically normal person has an adaptive response to shame-inducing situations. This includes admitting mistakes and faults and trying to be a better person. If you notice someone is consistently unable to feel shame and blames everyone else for things that go wrong, be on your guard. Chances are that person is high in sociopathic traits.