Shame, guilt, and the medical learner: ignored connections and why we should care

William E Bynum, Jeffrey L Goodie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

80 Scopus citations


CONTEXT: Shame and guilt are subjective emotional responses that occur in response to negative events such as the making of mistakes or an experience of mistreatment, and have been studied extensively in the field of psychology. Despite their potentially damaging effects and ubiquitous presence in everyday life, very little has been written about the impact of shame and guilt in medical education.

METHODS: The authors reference the psychology literature to define shame and guilt and then focus on one area in medical education in which they manifest: the response of the learner and teacher to medical errors. Evidence is provided from the psychology literature to show associations between shame and negative coping mechanisms, decreased empathy and impaired self-forgiveness following a transgression. The authors link this evidence to existing findings in the medical literature that may be related to unrecognised shame and guilt, and propose novel ways of thinking about a learner's ability to cope, remain empathetic and forgive him or herself following an error.

RESULTS: The authors combine the discussion of shame, guilt and learner error with findings from the medical education literature and outline three specific ways in which teachers might lead learners to a shame-free response to errors: by acknowledging the presence of shame and guilt in the learner; by avoiding humiliation, and by leveraging effective feedback.

CONCLUSIONS: The authors conclude with recommendations for research on shame and guilt and their influence on the experience of the medical learner. This critical research plus enhanced recognition of shame and guilt will allow teachers and institutions to further cultivate the engaged, empathetic and shame-resilient learners they strive to create.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1045-54
Number of pages10
JournalMedical Education
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2014


  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Education, Medical
  • Emotions
  • Empathy
  • Guilt
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Medical Errors
  • Shame
  • Teaching


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