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Shame, Guilt, and Fear: What 1,000 Americans Avoid Most

Churches may be emphasizing the wrong selling point of the gospel, suggests LifeWay.
Shame, Guilt, and Fear: What 1,000 Americans Avoid Most
Portion of Domenichino's "God admonishing Adam and Eve."

Many Americans are more worried about their reputation than their conscience.

They worry less about guilt and fear and more about avoiding shame, according to a new study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research.

Shame has become particularly powerful in American culture in the internet age, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. A single mistake or embarrassing moment posted on social media can ruin a person’s life.

“What’s our biggest cultural fear? Shame,” he said. “What’s surprising is not that personal freedom, ambition, and doing the right thing are valued by Americans. It’s that risk to our reputation is what matters most.”

Mixed motivations

Shaming has been a part of American life since the days of The Scarlet Letter. Set among the Puritans, the novel tells the story of Hester Prynne, a young mother forced to wear a scarlet “A” after committing adultery, considered a crime at the time. But Americans gave up on public shaming of criminals in the 1830s, according to journalist Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Since then, Americans have been more concerned about issues like guilt over wrongdoing, said McConnell. That’s shaped how churches have presented their faith to the public, he said.

LifeWay Research wanted to know if guilt is still a major issue for Americans. That might affect how Christians talk about their faith, said McConnell, since Christianity also addresses needs such as shame and fear.

“We wanted to know: Are churches addressing the issues Americans care about most?”

Researchers asked 1,000 Americans three questions to discover their feelings about fear, shame, guilt, and other issues.

  • Which of these feelings do you seek to avoid the most?
  • Which of these desires is strongest in your life?
  • Which of these directions do you value the most?

Overall, 38 percent of Americans say they avoid shame the most, while 31 percent say guilt and 30 percent say fear.

Education and age play a role in which feelings Americans avoid. Those with graduate degrees (44%) are more likely to avoid shame than those with high school diplomas or less (34%). Americans ages 25 to 34 avoid guilt (37%) more than those 55 and older (27%). Middle-aged Americans—those 35 to 54— are the most likely age group to worry about shame (44%).

Nones—those who claim no religious identity—avoid guilt (35%) more than those who are religious (30%). Those who are religious avoid shame (39%) more than nones (33%). Those from non-Christian faiths are most likely to avoid shame (48%).

When it comes to what Americans with evangelical beliefs avoid most, 34 percent say guilt, 34 percent say fear, and 32 percent say shame. For Americans worshiping at least once a month, 37 percent say shame, 32 percent say fear, and 31 percent say guilt. (The findings were not significantly different from non-evangelicals or non-worshipers.)

McConnell wonders whether Americans see shame as a bigger threat to their reputation or self-worth than guilt.

“Guilt says, ‘I deserve to be punished,’” he said. “But shame says, ‘I am worthless.’”

Personal freedom still crucial

LifeWay Research found that Americans still prize independence. When asked to name what they desire most from a list of options, 40 percent say personal freedom, while 31 percent say respect and 28 percent say the “desire to overcome.”

Men (44%) are more likely to choose personal freedom than women (37%). The nones—those with no religious affiliation—are more likely to choose personal freedom (50%) than Christians (38%). Personal freedom also matters most for those 18 to 24 (51%).

The more Americans attend religious services, the less they value personal freedom. Among those who attend services less than once a month, 44 percent value personal freedom most. That drops to 36 percent for those who attend more than once a month.

Americans without evangelical beliefs (42%) are also more likely to value personal freedom than those with evangelical beliefs (32%).

The desire to overcome matters more to Hispanic Americans (37%) than to white Americans (25%). Those from non-Christian faiths (40%) value overcoming more than Christians (27%).

Christians (35%) were more likely to desire respect than nones (21%) and those from non-Christian faiths (22%).

Make Mom proud

Some of the most interesting findings, said McConnell, came when researchers asked Americans, “Which of these directions do you value most?”

Their options:

  • Reaching my potential
  • Bringing honor to family and friends
  • Having friends in high places

Almost no one (3%) chose having friends in high places. Instead, Americans were split almost down the middle between reaching their potential (51%) and bringing honor to family and friends (46%).

McConnell sees a link between the two. Americans are ambitious, he said, but it’s not always ambition for its own sake.

“We want the people we love to be proud of us,” he said. “Few of us want to let our family and friends down.”

Among other findings:

  • Those with a graduate degree (57%) value reaching their potential more than those who are high school graduates or less (47%).
  • Nones (63%) value reaching their potential more than Christians (46%).
  • Christians (52%) value bringing honor to family and friends more than nones (33%).
  • Those without evangelical beliefs (53%) value reaching their potential more than those with evangelical beliefs (42%).
  • Those who attend a religious service once a month or more (56%) value bringing honor to family and friends more than those who attend less than once a month (42%).

McConnell is skeptical of one finding in the survey: the idea few Americans value having friends in high places. He wonders whether some Americans are ashamed to admit they want to be well connected.

Perhaps, he said, making Mom proud is more powerful than having rich friends.

“We all want to be appreciated by the ones we love.”

Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends.


LifeWay Research conducted the study Sept. 27 – Oct. 1, 2016. The survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. People in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate but do not already have internet access, GfK provides at no cost a laptop and ISP connection.

Sample stratification and weights were used for gender, age, race/ethnicity, region, metro/non-metro, education and income to reflect the most recent U.S. Census data. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.

LifeWay Research is a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect churches.

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