It is thought that the word shame arose from an older word meaning to cover. Covering oneself, literally or figuratively, is a natural expression of shame.
A "sense of shame" is the consciousness or awareness of shame as a state or condition. Such shame cognition may occur as a result of the experience of shame affect or, more generally, in any situation of embarrassment, dishonor, disgrace, inadequacy, humiliation, or chagrin. A condition or state of shame may be also be assigned externally, by others, regardless of the one's own experience or awareness. "To shame" generally means to actively assign or communicate a state of shame to another. Behaviors designed to “uncover” or "expose" others are sometimes used for this purpose, as are utterances like “Shame!” or “Shame on you!” Finally, to "have shame" means to maintain a sense of restraint against offending others while to "have no shame" is to behave without such restraint.
According to cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, shame is a violation of cultural or social values while guilt feelings arise from violations of one's internal values. Thus, it is possible to feel ashamed of thought or behavior that no one knows about and to feel guilty about actions that gain the approval of others.
Helen B. Lewis says in her book Shame and Guilt in Neurosis that "The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus. Similarly, Fossum and Mason say in their book Facing Shame that "While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one's actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.
Gershen Kaufman, in his book Shame: The Power of Caring, does not make the distinction between having a focus on one's self versus having a focus on one's actions. Kaufman's view of shame is aligned with that of Affect Theory, namely that shame is one of a set of instinctual short-duration physiological reactions to stimulation of a given kind (i.e., shame is a pre-cognitive affect). Kaufman considers guilt to be a learned behavior consisting essentially of self-directed blame or contempt, with shame occuring consequent to such behaviors making up a part of the overall experience of guilt. Here, by self-blame and self-contempt Kaufman means the application, towards (a part of) one's self, of exactly the same dynamic that blaming of, and contempt for, others represents when it is applied interpersonally. Kaufman saw that mechanisms such as blame or contempt may be used as a defending strategy against the experience of shame and that someone who has a pattern of applying them to himself may well attempt to defend against a shame experience by applying self-blame or self-contempt. This, however, can lead to an internalized, self-reinforcing sequence of shame events for which Kaufman coined the term "shame spiral.
Shame is enshrouded in legal precedent as a pillar of punishment and ostensible correction.
Shame has been linked to narcissism in the psychoanalytic literature. It is one of the most intense emotions. The individual experiencing shame may feel totally despicable, worthless and feel that there is no redeem.
Shared opinions and expected behaviours that cause the feeling of shame (as well as an associated reproval) if violated by an individual are in any case proven to be very efficient in guiding behaviour in a group or society.
Shame is a common form of control used by those people who commit relational aggression. It is an important weapon in marriage, family, and church settings. It is also used in the workplace as a form of overt social control or aggression.
Shamery is also a central feature of punishment, shunning, or ostracism. In addition, shame is often seen in victims of child neglect, child abuse and a host of other crimes against children. Parental incest is considered by child psychologists to be the ultimate form of shaming.
In the Philippines, Alfredo Lim popularized such tactics during his term as mayor of Manila. On July 1, 1997, he began a controversial "spray paint shame campaign” in an effort to stop drug use. He and his team sprayed bright red paint on two hundred squatter houses whose residents had been charged, but not yet convicted, of selling prohibited substances. Officials of other municipalities, emboldened by Lim’s campaign, began conceiving their own anti-crime shame strategies.
Lim’s shame campaign generated much publicity, and many questioned the legality and humaneness of singling out unconvicted suspects. Former Senator Rene A. Saguisag, a member of Movement for Brotherhood, Integrity and Nationalism, Inc. (MABINI), issued a public statement condemning Lim’s policy: "The shame campaign violated presumption of innocence because it transgresses due process…" In January 2000, the 14th Division of the Court of Appeals ruled the policy as "invalid and unconstitutional.
In January 2005, Metro Manila Development Authority Chair Bayani Fernando announced a "wet rags shame campaign" to target commuters who wait for rides in the middle of the streets. The MMDA traffic enforcers planned to punish jaywalkers by driving by in service vehicles and splashing them with wet rags attached to poles. Sound trucks were to drive ahead and warn pedestrians of their approach; those who refused to comply with traffic regulations were to have wet rags dropped on their heads.
Sen. Richard Gordon disagreed with the shame tactic, saying such a way of disciplining pedestrians is a "return to Grade One." He added that the campaign might work for a time but would end up being futile. Rep. Vincent Crisologo of Ilocos Sur, a known critic of Fernando, said the MMDA chief was resorting to martial law tactics. Rep. Rozzano Rufino Biazon of Muntinlupa City, criticized the plan: "It only shows that the MMDA looks at people as animals who should be herded like cattle instead of using reason to make them follow the law… it is an admission that its personnel assigned to the thoroughfares are not doing their job."
Chairman Fernando, unfazed by criticisms, proceeded with the campaign.
In 2005, Tony Kwok, Hong Kong’s former corruption chief, suggested that the Philippine government should carry out a shame campaign to eliminate political corruption. A consultant of the Philippines’ Office of the Ombudsman, Kwok said, "This is what you need, a shame campaign. You have to let the politicians know that corruption is a high-risk crime." Kwok cited Hong Kong’s use of TV advertisements to discourage governmental misconduct. He added, "The best way is through enforcement and education.