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The Trajectory of Self-Conscious Emotions in Young Adulthood: Pilot Study 1

Ethics Approval Number: 2011/102

Researcher: Eleanor Woodford

The present study aimed to assess the impact of culture, gender and age on young adults’ experiences of shame, both adaptive and maladaptive guilt, as well as both hubristic and authentic pride. Additionally, the present study also explored cultural differences in how shame, guilt (adaptive and maladaptive) and pride (hubristic and authentic) related to psychological distress, with specific regard to depression, anxiety and stress. The sample consisted of 129 individuals, comprising of 65 Singaporeans and 64 Australians. The mean age of participants was 23.4 years, whereby the mean ages of the Australian and Singaporean samples were 22 and 24.8, respectively. Only completed questionnaires from individuals who were within the age range of 18 to 35 years of age were included in the analysis. Measures of SCEs included the Test of Self-Conscious Affect-3 (TOSCA-3), Interpersonal Guilt Questionnaire (IGQ; Survivor guilt and separation guilt subscales), and the Authentic and Hubristic Pride Scales. Measures of psychological well-being included the Depression Anxiety and Stress Scales (DASS). A series of three-way between groups ANOVA were conducted to explore the impact of age, gender and nationality on measures of shame, pride and guilt. Participants were divided into four groups according to their age (Group 1: 18-20 years; Group 2: 21-23 years; Group 3: 24-28 years; Group 4: 29-35 years).

Although no cultural differences were found for adaptive guilt and survival guilt, Singaporeans were found to report significantly greater levels of separation guilt than their Australian counterparts. Separation guilt was one of the maladaptive forms of guilt that represented the exaggerated belief that to differ or separate from one’s parents and loved ones will cause the latter harm (O’Connor et al., 1997). Indeed, Singapore is reflective of a collectivistic society that places a strong emphasis on filial piety (Quah, 1994). Young adult Singaporeans may be bound by an undercurrent of cultural guidelines to provide and care for their aging parents. Consistent with the literature, Australians’ lower level of separation guilt may reflect a different orientation of the self to their family and interpersonal relationships, whereby they may consider entering tertiary education and the workforce, attaining financial independence and starting a family as key milestones. Indeed, it appears that the individualistic self may place critical importance on the self as a unit of life and a source of identity (Mesquita et al., 2004). Singaporeans and Australians were not found to differ in their reported levels of shame, hubristic and authentic pride.

Age differences were found for separation guilt, whereby the younger group of young adults aged 18-20 years old were reported to experience more separation guilt than older young adults. In addition, Singaporeans significantly accounted for more separation guilt in two age groups (18-20 year olds and 24-28 year olds) than Australians. However, due to the disproportionate sample sizes of Singaporeans and Australians in these age bands, the results obtained require cautious interpretation and further confirmation with a larger and more proportionate sample. The present study’s findings also converge with findings from Orth et al. (2010) and Bruno et al. (2009) that, pan-culturally, females experience more guilt when compared to males.

Cross-cultural assessment of self-conscious emotions on psychological distress found that shame positively correlated with all measures of psychological distress across both cultures, with the exception of anxiety for Singaporeans. However, with separation guilt partialed out, shame lost its significant associations for the Singaporean participants only and remained correlated with psychological distress for Australian participants. These results provide new insight on the possible cross-cultural impact of separation guilt’s shared variance with shame on psychological distress. Results suggest that the emotion of shame may be uniquely related to psychological distress within an individualistic culture, such as Australia, suggesting a possibility that collectivistic cultures, which value interpersonal relationships, may have in existence social supports for the coping with negative self-conscious emotions, such as shame. In contrast, individualistic cultures, such as Australia that possess an independent self-construal may have lesser interpersonal and social resources that could assist the individual’s coping with negative emotions of shame.

With specific regard to Singaporeans, hubristic pride correlated with all three measures of psychological distress. This finding is of particular interest, and suggests that despite a general collectivistic devaluation of pride (Eid & Diener, 2001), collectivistic individuals, when experiencing pride that arises from attributions to internal, stable, and uncontrollable causes, are more likely to experience symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. Building on previous studies’ theories of the collectivistic valuation of shame and devaluation of pride (Eid & Diener, 2001; Wong & Tsai, 2007), the present study suggests that the collectivistic valuation of shame may work to promote healthy social mechanisms that assist with coping with shame. In contrast, the collectivistic devaluation of pride may inhibit the individual’s willingness toward expressing the emotion of hubristic pride, which may result in lesser social resources that may possibly assist with the internalised experience of hubristic pride, an emotion that has been associated with psychological distress.