UConn professor researches how shame turns into action

Psychology professor Colin Leach is seen sitting in his office. Leach has been studying how shame can positively affect some students while negatively affecting others. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

Shame can motivate people to improve a shortcoming, or it can be a dead end depending on the situation and environment, according to research done by a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut.

“For a long time psych argued that because people feel bad about themselves for flaws and that it would lead people to run away from or avoid that part of themselves,” psychology professor Colin Leach said. “That makes sense but there are obviously some times when realize that we have a shortcoming also motivates us to become better. Those times are really important because improving is an important aspect of being a good human being”

This could restructure the entire criminal justice system. The way people punish others for crimes can either suggest to them that they’re never going to change, or rehabilitation can help people be honest about their shortcoming and improve themselves.
— Colin Leach

For example, if a student does really poorly on a test, the feeling of shame might make them motivated to do better on the next test Leach said. This is opposed to a friendship that has ended. This might be a shortcoming that someone feels can never be fixed.

“The key thing that we argue is that it really depends on if a persons’ shortcoming can be made better or whether they are led to believe there is really little chance to be better,” Leach said.

For this study, Leach said that he did a meta analysis of many different published studies. He said that he looked at some of his own studies on shame as well as others to draw this conclusion.

Leach said that he believed shame had both positive and negative effects, but didn’t know how prevalent it would be when looking at other studies.

“I was surprised by how strong it was. I thought it would exist but I wasn’t sure if it would be a minority of studies or more prevalent,” Leach said.

His findings led him to think about the implications this would have on criminal justice and capital punishment, he said.

 Leach said that the many criminals are punished, one of these punishments being  losing the right to vote, can suggest a really serious shortcoming for that person, which often leads to a negative and demotivating shame because they feel there is nothing they can do.

“This could restructure the entire criminal justice system,” Leach said.  “The way people punish others for crimes can either suggest to them that they’re never going to change, or rehabilitation can help people be honest about their shortcoming and improve themselves.”

Leach is interested in looking more deeply into the situations in which people become motivated from shame versus demotivated, for a future study.

“I am interested in the understanding of what are the circumstances people are willing to face shortcomings, even though it might be painful,” Leach said. 


Emma Krueger is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.krueger@uconn.edu