Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version

October 1975


Published in Psychological Review 82:4 (1975), pp. 299–315. Copyright © 1975 American Psychological Association. Used by permission.


A theory is presented concerning the impact of attributions about the causes of emotional responses as they influence self-control in temptation situations. Research is reviewed indicating a high level of adult sensitivity to external influence in making such causal attributions. Two studies are presented in which the post transgression emotions of second-grade children are labeled shame (because of being found out) or guilt (due to the transgression itself); when a similar situation was subsequently represented as safe from detection, shame-condition children transgressed 60–80% more than guilt-condition subjects. It is suggested that emotional arousal elicited in temptation situations because of past punishment or options that are inconsistent with the self-image is necessary for inhibition but not sufficient unless attributed to a relevant cause. The literature on the relative effectiveness of moral socialization techniques is discussed with respect to the theory, and the relevance to cognitive dissonance and to overjustification approaches to motivation is discussed. An integration of social-learning and cognitive-developmental theories is approached through explicating the translation of moral decision into behavior by focusing on the ways that cognition may exert partial control over the impact of less finely differentiated emotional response, allowing cognitive overrides of contradictory emotional dispositions without eliminating the emotion.