Guilt, pity and shame in humanitarian and human rights communications

This post was contributed by Dr Bruna Seu from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies

NGOs often use images designed to induce feelings of guilt in order to encourage donations

You have just sat down for lunch. You switch on the TV and you are confronted with the image of a malnourished child. Somebody is measuring their arm with a tape and the appeal asks you to donate £3. It’s simple: you have your lunch, they don’t. You feel guilty and you give.

This guilt-inducing formula raises much-needed revenue for NGOs and humanitarian organisations, so it is understandable why they return to it time and again. However, my research into the way the public responds to information about human rights violations and humanitarian crises suggests that using guilt as a fundraising tool is problematic.

The problem with guilt in humanitarian fundraising

The pain of guilt inspires in people a new capacity for reparation and the desire to right the wrong. While a monetary donation can momentarily alleviate the guilt inspired by humanitarian appeals, for many it does not constitute a sufficiently reparative action.

A more desirable aim than finding a way to momentarily alleviate guilt is to develop a feeling of connectedness with those suffering. Development of a meaningful understanding of the issues at play is hindered by narrow, racially-stereotyped portrayals of developing countries, which ignore the role of domestic actors in the global South and reinforce the perception that more charity is required rather than fundamental political and economic change.

A further problem is that the sheer volume of these guilt-inducing messages leads to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that shuts down routes to improved understanding and connectedness, creating a vicious cycle where we feel guilty, donate to alleviate guilt, and then ignore the suffering other until we are bombarded by further guilt-inducing messages. This cycle leaves no room for alternative thinking that would increase awareness of development issues or behavioural engagement in the form of volunteering and campaigning.

Participants in my studies have shown awareness of guilt being part of their immediate reaction and that when ‘it wears off’, as they put it, they are left with nothing to hang onto. So we have a self-perpetuating cycle whereby people donate partly because they  feel pity, compassion, guilt and they want to help; partly because they don’t know what else to do; and partly, as a consequence of these two. Donating is a way of ‘switching off with a clear conscience’.

Shame vs guilt

My research is now beginning to consider the experience of shame as opposed to guilt, and whether this would lead to more meaningful engagement in the issues. There are many potential problems to invoking feelings of shame. However, while guilt is related to an action – something we did or didn’t do, shame is about the whole of ourselves. Yet, precisely because it is personal, rather than relating to a bad action, it rests on relationality – what needs repairing is the link with the other. Let’s say if guilt messages are of the kind ‘skip lunch – save a child’ and a child dies because you did not skip lunch, of course you give – you ‘did the right thing’. But what if messages prompted reactions such as: ‘I don’t want to be the kind of person who is informed of such horrors and doesn’t do anything.’?

Contrary to guilt, regulated by the world of norms and laws which is the territory of the superego – the self I ought to be, the referent in shame is the ego ideal – the self I wish I could be. It might seem a small difference, but one that shifts the terrain from the transactional to the relational. I am no longer saving the other, but on the contrary it is with the other that I can be saved. When the bond between self and other is intact we feel pride and harmony. Maybe such a relational mode could return dignity and power to the other and make us agents not of hand downs but of our own betterment as human beings.

This article is based on a talk that Dr Seu gave recently at the Dartington Centre for Social Research

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