Children’s Proneness to Shame and Guilt Predict Risky and Illegal Behaviors in Young Adulthood


Do shame and guilt help people avoid doing wrong? Although some research suggests that guilt-proneness is a protective factor while shame-proneness puts individuals at risk, most research is either cross-sectional or short-term. In this longitudinal study, 380 5th graders (ages 10–12) completed measures of proneness to shame and guilt. We re-interviewed 68 % of participants after they turned 18 years old (range 18–21). Guilt-proneness assessed in childhood predicted fewer sexual partners, less use of illegal drugs and alcohol, and less involvement with the criminal justice system. Shame-proneness, in contrast, was a risk factor for later deviant behavior. Shame-prone children were more likely to have unprotected sex and use illegal drugs in young adulthood. These results held when controlling for childhood SES and teachers’ ratings of aggression. Children’s moral emotional styles appear to be well established by at least middle childhood, with distinct downstream implications for risky behavior in early adulthood.

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This research was supported by grants to June P. Tangney: Grant #1R15 HD025506-01 from the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development; Grant #BCS-0096950 from the National Science Foundation; and Grant #R01 DA14694 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Many thanks to members of the Human Emotions Research Lab for their invaluable assistance on this project. We are also very grateful for the assistance of the individuals who participated in our study.

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Correspondence to Jeffrey Stuewig.

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Stuewig, J., Tangney, J.P., Kendall, S. et al. Children’s Proneness to Shame and Guilt Predict Risky and Illegal Behaviors in Young Adulthood. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 46, 217–227 (2015).

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  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Substance use
  • Delinquency