A key aspect of shame motivating change, however, is that it only works if we think we can change the flawed aspect of our character, according to a recent meta-analysis. If the shameful act is repairable, then shame makes you commit to change—it lets you know you need to change and the negative feeling gives you the motivation to do so.

But if the ashamed person thinks they cannot repair the flawed part of themselves, they will hide and wait for it to blow over without any real attempt to reform. One study on competency failures found that when improving themselves was perceived to be very difficult, shame led to a greater desire to protect their reputation, rather than motivation to improve. If you try to reform and fail, it is even more painful than covering it up, because you risk losing face in front of others or damaging your self-esteem even more. This suggests that when reform appears too difficult or even impossible, shame leads to withdrawing and saving face rather than the motivation to reform (it’s important to note that this research is on competency failures, not moral transgressions).