Deception and Emotion: The Effects of Motivation, Relationship Type, and Sex on Expected Feelings of Guilt and Shame Following Acts of Deception in United States and Chinese Samples

By Seiter, John S.; Bruschke, Jon | Communication Studies, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Deception and Emotion: The Effects of Motivation, Relationship Type, and Sex on Expected Feelings of Guilt and Shame Following Acts of Deception in United States and Chinese Samples


Seiter, John S., Bruschke, Jon, Communication Studies


Emotion plays a critical role in the deception process. Researchers have examined outcomes associated with the target of deception--such as increased suspicion, uncertainty, negative affect, and diminished trust and relational satisfaction (e.g., Aune, Metts, & Hubbard, 1998; Cole, 2001; Jang, Smith, & Levine, 2002; Levine, McCornack, & Avery, 1992; McCornack & Levine, 1990). However, little empirical attention has been paid to the emotional consequences for those who engage in deception. Indeed, McCornack and Levine (1990) argue that "Perhaps no other factor relevant to relational communication is as significant and neglected as emotion" (p. 120). This is surprising in light of Buller and Burgoon's (1998) observation that "emotional processes are incorporated in every explanation of deceptive communication" (p. 381). To be sure, both classic and contemporary theories, ranging from Ekman and Friesen's (1969) seminal work on behavioral "leakage" during deception to Burgoon and Buller's (2004) more recent work on Interpersonal Deception Theory, suggest that emotion is a key component within deceptive interactions.

Ekman (2001) argued that several emotions are intertwined with deceit, including fear, "duping delight," guilt, and shame. The latter two, he argued, although distinct, are related. For example, whereas fear is derived from the possible consequences of being caught, shame and guilt result from transgressions of one's internalized moral standards. Based on this similarity, it makes sense to examine these emotions together, as Ekman did and as we do in this study. In addition, Ekman (2001) supposed that several variables should influence the extent to which deception is perceived to be a transgression that leads to the experience of shame and guilt. For example, he speculated that selfishly motivated lies would lead to more guilt and shame than would altruistically motivated lies, and that lies told to personal acquaintances would lead to more guilt than would lies to strangers. In addition, research shows that individuals' sex (Levine, McCornack, & Avery, 1992) and cultural background (Seiter, Bruschke, & Bai, 2002) affect their perceptions of the acceptability of deception, suggesting that these variables may also mediate guilt and shame during deception. Given these relationships and the notable lack of research in this area, this study investigates how communicators' motivations, relationship with the target, sex, and culture (United States vs. China) affect expected feelings of guilt and shame following imagined acts of deception.

Review of Literature

Guilt and Shame

Although guilt and shame share commonalities, the dominant view is that these two emotions involve distinct phenomenological experiences (e.g., Tangney, 1992). Whereas earlier conceptualizations viewed guilt as an internal reaction to some transgression and shame as the result of public exposure of impropriety, in a revised perspective Lewis (1971) suggested that an actual audience is not necessary for experiencing shame. Instead, "In guilt, the self is the source of evaluation, and some specific behavior is the object of that evaluation. In shame, the self is split into a focal object and an observing 'other.' Thus, the self is both the source and the object of evaluation, as one imagines how one would look to the other" (Tangney, 1992, pp. 199-200).

Although theories have focused on situational factors that distinguish guilt and shame (e.g., Benedict, 1946), ironically there has been little systematic study of how the concepts relate to deception (Tangney, 1992). In two studies, DePaulo and colleagues (DePaulo & Kashy, 1998; DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, & Epstein, 1996) asked participants to rate their feelings about telling lies on a scale labeled "very comfortable" to "very uncomfortable." In both studies participants reported negative feelings, particularly when lying in close relationships. …

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