Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Guilt and empathy

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Guilt and empathy:
What is the relationship between guilt and empathy?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Guilt and empathy have a complex relationship with the brain and our emotions.

We have all felt guilty about an action or circumstance that we have individually have had a direct effect on in our lives. We have also probably experienced empathy, resonating with someone’s feelings (Roberts, Strayer, & Denham, 2014) regardless of the relationship with have with the person.

The relationship between guilt and empathy is not clearly understood but is complex due to the large number of factors involved. The purpose of this chapter is to provide a greater understanding of the complex relationship between the emotions guilt and empathy.

The chapter starts with an overview of the definitions and importance of guilt and empathy. The main section discusses three related theories and behaviours: Prosocial relations and behaviour, anticipated guilt and empathy and the negative-state relief model. The importance of self-reflection and regulation will then be discussed in relation to guilt and empathy. The final section will provide some current and opportunities for practical examples of guilt and empathy and future applications and potential directions of future research.

Focus questions

  • What is guilt?
  • What is empathy?
  • What is prosocial behaviour?
  • What is self-reflection and regulation?
  • How can the relationship between guilt and empathy be applied practically?

What is guilt?[edit | edit source]

Guilt is a type of emotion that arises from the thought of perceptually doing something wrong in the view of others or from an undertaken action (Lindsey, Kimo Ah Yun & Hill, 2007). Guilt can be perceived subjectively as a negative reflection of one’s undesirable behaviour (Tangney, Youman, & Stuewig, 2009), with attention to the effect that behaviour has on others that can lead to empathy and reparative action (Howell, Turowski, & Buro, 2012; Tangney et al., 2009).

Figure 2. Guilt often leads to other self-conscious emotions (e.g. sadness)

Experiencing guilt can result in a range of actions and responses. Guilt has been theoretically linked to apology, with the emotions of guilt and sorrow being linked to empathy in regards to seeking apology (Howell et al., 2012). The expression of guilty feelings often result generally in apologising, expressing sympathy (significant for experiencing empathy) and avoiding actions due to anticipating guilt (Baumeister, Stillwell & Heatherton, 1994). Example 1 provides an example of pre-emptive guilt.

Guilt is a part of a larger set of emotions called self-conscious emotions. Self-conscious emotions are often designated as emerging from the use of self-evaluation and self-reflection (Leary, 2007). Guilt can often be linked back to individuals evaluating their own values and past actions, or imaging being evaluated by others around them (Leary, 2007). Other emotions including shame, social anxiety and embarrassment also are in the category of self-conscious emotions. However, unlike these other emotions, guilt is less focused on the individual self, with guilt often being more of an adaptive emotion from an interpersonal perspective (Leary, 2007). Guilt has also been observed as an adaptive reaction based off empathy (Silfver & Helkama, 2007). This link with empathy is small look into the complex relationship that exists that will be explored further on.

Example: Pre-emptive guilt

Example 1: A child accidentally drops a plate on the floor and it breaks. The parents walk in to see the child standing over the broken plate. The child begins to feel guilty for the accident occurring and chooses to apologise in an attempt to avoid being told off and lessen the feelings of guilt.

What is empathy?[edit | edit source]

Empathy is an emotion that is fundamentally about understanding other people’s emotions (Pelligra, 2011). The ability to view the perspective of another individual as if it was occurring to them, including cognitive and emotional responses, are essential parts of empathy (Basil, Ridgway, & Basil, 2007).  Empathy has been studied from a number of different aspects in past research. Cognitive ability is an important aspect of being able to view another person’s perspective (Silfver & Helkama, 2007).

Figure 3. Empathy involves feeling another individuals emotions e.g. sadness or despair

Feeling a sympathetic or personal distress reaction is a crucial part of showing empathy (Silfver, Helkama, Lönnqvist & Verkasalo, 2008). Sympathy involves feeling a similar emotion to another person and personal distress is experiencing a negative self-reaction to another’s state (Silfver et al. 2008). Example 2 provides an example of a nurse feeling empathetic and sympathy for a family.    

The emotion of empathy has been frequently linked to the emotion of guilt. Self-direction has been linked along with self-consciousness to the occurrence of empathy occurring when the emotion of guilt is activated. The regulation of behaviour is also promoted by guilt and empathy (Howell et al, 2012). Feedback emotions (shame, pride and guilt) can be used to predict the occurrence of empathy. The most prominent link made between guilt and empathy however is found in prosocial behaviour. For example, anticipated guilt in particular can be used to facilitate the various prosocial effects of empathy (Pelligra, 2011). The positive relationship between prosocial behaviours and empathy and guilt provides the foundation from which the relationship between guilt and empathy can be explored.

Example: Empathy in practice

Example 2: A nurse is caring for a terminally ill patient, when the family of the patient come in to visit. The family is overwhelmed with emotion from the news that their family member is terminally ill. The family begins to cry and despair. The nurse looks at the family and starts to feel great sadness as well and eventually breaks down in tears with the family.

Relationship between guilt and empathy[edit | edit source]

Research studies have covered numerous behaviours which are the result of the emotions guilt and empathy. There is a complex relationship between these two emotions. This section will cover one prominent behaviour which is prosocial behaviour. Using behaviours to anticipate guilt and empathy will then be discussed. Lastly, the negative-state relief model and its relationship with prosocial behaviour will be analysed.

Prosocial behaviour[edit | edit source]

Exploring prosocial behaviour can help break down the complexities of the relationship between guilt and empathy. Prosocial behaviour has been extensively covered in research studies. Prosocial behaviours are generally defined in literature as behaviours that help to maintain relationships and interactions with others (Roberts et al., 2014). Prosocial behaviours, along with anti-social behaviours are the result of interactions between self-conscious emotions such as guilt and empathy. The interactions of prosocial behaviour with other behaviour outcomes helps to provide a broader understanding of the relations between both behaviours and how emotions respond and react. This will be discussed further in the sections negative-state relief model and anticipated guilt and empathy.  

Prosocial behaviour has a positive correlation with guilt. Feelings of empathy are also likely to occur as an outcome of guilt. Increased levels of guilt are likely to result in increased prosocial behaviour, with empathy also increasing the likelihood of this behaviour when brought on by guilt (Torstveit, Sütterlin & Lugo, 2016). Individuals who are also more prone to feeling guilty are likely to undertake helpful behaviours and activities. Guilt proneness (a personality trait) can result in an increase in empathetic actions towards others (including responsibility towards and caring about other individuals) (Torstveit et al., 2016). What this suggests is experiencing increased feelings of guilt also coincides with an increase in empathetic behaviours and feelings of empathy towards others in the form of prosocial behaviours. Also, because guilt can act as a social emotion, that acts and responds to the appraisal and disapproval of others, the amount of empathy one has can increase or decrease the amount of guilt one feels (Roberts et al., 2014). Results regarding prosocial behaviours however show slight differences between genders with females tending to display higher levels of prosocial behaviour (Roberts et al., 2014). Potential differences between genders in regards to levels of prosocial behaviour are important to consider when exploring the relationship between guilt and empathy.

Males and females display different levels of empathy. Females generally have higher levels of empathy than males (Toussaint & Webb, 2005). However, males' empathy encouraged forgiveness (Toussaint & Webb, 2005). This altruistic behaviour (forgiveness) is also more likely to occur when an individual has guilt proneness and a heightened level of empathy (Torstveit et al., 2016). This links back to prosocial behaviour where individuals can potentially feel guilty in carrying out specific actions (Roberts et al., 2014), with guilt potentially leading to empathy through forgiveness for example. As empathy has been found to co-exist along with other emotions, including adaptive guilt and anger (Roberts et al., 2014), guilt may not necessarily result in empathy straight away but in another emotion that eventually causes the feeling of empathy. Potential gender differences in the prominence of certain emotions in males and females (Toussaint & Webb, 2005) may help to explain the differences in prosocial behaviour levels between genders. This may also support the notion that empathy is strongly linked to higher levels of prosocial behaviour, when guilt and other emotions are also considered as well (Roberts et al., 2014). This helps to reinforce the notion that increased levels of empathy lead to stronger prosocial behaviours.

Anticipated guilt and empathy[edit | edit source]

Guilt and empathy are both emotions that can be anticipated by using possible behavioural outcomes from their use[awkward expression?]. Positive actions such as giving can be traced back to empathy, and apology for example, can be traced back to guilt, empathy and shame (Howell et al., 2012). Exploring how guilt and empathy are facilitators for behaviours can help describe the relationship between the two emotions. These behaviours can be used to observe the interactions between guilt and empathy, and how certain behaviours can be used to anticipate an individual feeling guilt or empathy. From a practical perspective, guilt and empathy can also be used to regulate certain behaviours, such as aggression (Stanger, Kavussanu & Ring, 2012).

Guilt and empathy have often been seen as facilitators for certain behaviours. For instance, the link between guilt and empathy is often characterised as a facilitator for appropriate behavioural regulation (Howell et al., 2012). A study has examined the relationships between guilt, shame and empathy (Howell et al., 2012). The study found that both guilt and empathy play critical roles in active social reparative regulation such as apologetic behaviour (Howell et al., 2012). Higher levels of empathy can also lead to increased sensitivity towards guilt, which results more prosocial behaviours (Pelligra, 2011). For this specific study, guilt was the overall trigger for the participant’s choices, with empathy not being the main cause of prosocial behaviour (Pelligra, 2011). This is a contrast with Howell et al. (2012) as empathic behaviours (showing concern and perspective taking) both positively correlated with shame, apology and guilt. This displays that research is still not clear on the correlation between guilt and empathy. However, in most studies guilt does have a positive correlation with empathy, and can used to anticipate certain behaviours.

Anticipating the occurrence of guilt and empathy can have practical applications for predicting the reactions and habits of individuals. Past research has examined the processes of how guilt can lead to giving from empathic feelings or reactions (Basil et al., 2007). This relates to anticipated guilt mentioned in prosocial behaviours, as empathy leads to an increase in anticipated guilt, which resulted in increased donations as an example (Basil et al., 2007). If an individual also has a higher level of empathy, an individual has a higher chance to feeling guilty before and after an action is undertaken (Lindsey et al., 2007). What this means practically, was using empathy to reduce negative actions was shown to be stronger than maladaptive behaviours in reducing the amount of guilt an individual feels. Increasing empathy can also reduce negative behaviours such as aggression and certain negative emotions (Stanger et al., 2012). Increasing the level of empathy in an individual results can also raise the levels of guilt that would be experienced, ultimately reducing aggressive behaviour and negative emotions towards others (Stanger et al., 2012). From this there are potential ways it can be applied in services such as rehabilitation with further research and refinement in application which will be discussed in practical applications.

Negative state relief model[edit | edit source]

The negative-state relief model is frequently brought up in the discussion of prosocial behaviour. Although there isn’t extensive research on the negative-state relief model, the model is useful as it helps explain the effects of guilt on an individual. This can be linked back to how increased empathy can result from guilt. Negative-state relief model has a robust positive relationship with prosocial behaviours which will be discussed in this section.

When an individual is feeling guilty they are more likely to engage in behaviours which reduce or lessen the feeling of guilt. The negative-state relief model states that individuals seek to reduce the unpleasant state which is brought about by guilt through actions that increase positive affect (Lindsey et al., 2007). A reduction in guilt can also be achieved with amenability to helping others (Lindsey et al., 2007). Empathy induces altruistic behaviours and motivations, including selflessness (Van Lange, 2008). Prosocial behaviours are intentional voluntary behaviours which bring benefits towards others (Lindsey et al., 2007). The positive relationship between helpful prosocial behaviour, empathy and the negative state relief model display how guilt and empathy interact with each other. Individuals who feel guilty are more likely to engage in empathetic behaviours (and display more empathy). Individuals will engage in prosocial behaviours to reduce their guilt levels, showing that when there is an increase in feelings of guilt, there is also a positive increase in empathy.

However, there are also factors that contribute to prosocial behaviour. An individual trying to improve their overall mood to reduce guilt by showing empathy and engaging in empathy could be perceived as a selfish rather than empathetic (Lin-Healy & Small, 2012). There is the possibility that even if an individual is perceived as showing empathy as a direct result of guilt, they are trying to reduce guilt versus actually having a positive increase in empathy, for example when it comes to donations (Lin-Healy & Small, 2012). Further research is required in this area to determine if positive actions that are measured or perceived as empathetic are done for pure altruistic reasons, or undertaken to reduce the level of guilt felt.

Self-reflection and self-regulation[edit | edit source]

Guilt is part of a group of emotions called self-conscious emotions. There is an identifiable relationship present between guilt and empathy that can be measured through examining different aspects of the self. These aspects include self-reflection, self-regulation, self-rumination and self-evaluation. These aspects of the self can be linked back to prosocial behaviours.

Self-evaluation and self-reflection are often the result of experiencing a self-conscious emotion which focuses the individual reflecting on themselves (Leary, 2007). Shame and guilt are both prominent self-conscious emotions that often result in both self-reflection and self-reflection from the individual (Leary, 2007). Shame is often placed in the same category as guilt. However, research has shown that guilt, unlike shame, encourages adaptive forms of empathy (Joireman, 2004). Self-reflection is important, as an individual has an opportunity to reflect on their actions rather than become distressed from experiencing shame and the resulting self-rumination (Joireman, 2004). Reflecting and perspective taking are both made possible by the ability to reflect, which are important for experiencing empathy (Basil et al., 2007). If the action of self-reflecting occurs, it may also support the notion that guilt can increase prosocial behaviour by allowing an individual to reflect on their inaction (Silfver & Helkama, 2007) and subsequently grow more empathetic as a result.

The self-regulation of interpersonal behaviours involves being able to relate and express other people’s moral standards, interests and viewpoints (Leary, 2007). Self-regulation, unlike self-reflection helps an individual monitor their own behaviour in order to effectively socialise with others, while self-reflection is involved with intrapersonal behaviours (a stronger focus on the self). Guilt that results from interpersonal behaviour, unlike intrapersonal behaviour, generally comes from not meeting societal expectations through actions or behaviours, effectively reducing communal relationships (Baumeister et al., 1994). This leads to self-reflection on intrapersonal behaviours that will lead back to an improvement on self-regulation of interpersonal behaviours. Empathy is a crucial part of this process as interpersonal empathy, the obligation one feels towards others, is necessary for this growth. However, empathy itself is not the result of the relationship with others, but the combination of cognitive process (self-regulation) with self-reflection makes guilt turn into empathy (Eisenberg, 2000). This displays how an individual’s self-regulation of interpersonal behaviours creates the strong link between guilt and empathy. Self-regulation, just like self-reflection helps to show the positive relationship empathy and guilt have resulting in positive behavioural outcomes such as prosocial behaviours and better interpersonal relationships.

Practical applications[edit | edit source]

The relationship between guilt and empathy is mostly theoretically based, however there is potential for there to be real-world applications of this relationship within society. There is potential use for increasing prosocial behaviours and reducing undesirable behaviours. However, there are limitations that will also be discussed, along with potential directions for future research in practical applications.

The positive relationship between guilt and empathy has the potential to increase prosocial behaviour. For example, the development of self-regulation mechanisms can be used to improve social behaviour by improving the temperament of an individual using effortful control (overriding a leading response to achieve a non-dominant response) (Posner & Rothbart, 2000). Stranger et al. (2012) researched using empathy to reduce aggressive behaviours and emotions. This was achieved by evoking an empathetic response from participants that resulted in reduced aggressive responses and an increase anticipated feeling of guilt. This is a strong example of how evoking empathy can be used to increase guilt and reduce negative behaviours as a by-product. However, a majority of research has focused primarily on the theoretical relationship between guilt and empathy, and also the outcome of self-conscious emotions on prosocial behaviour (Torstveit et al., 2016; Roberts et al., 2014; Silfver & Helkama, 2007). What this is reflective of is there has been less research focusing specifically on the relationship between guilt and empathy, as other self-conscious emotions are often included in these studies. There has also been less research on the practical use of self-conscious emotions in regulating behaviour.

There are limitations with the research methodology used in studies focusing on prosocial and self-conscious behaviours. A majority of the studies conducted use survey research designs and rely predominantly on self-report data (Roberts et al., 2014; Torstveit et al., 2016). Studies also often measure guilt and empathy using different scales. This makes comparisons between studies difficult as the criteria for one scale in a particular study may be unlike another. There is potential for creating consistent measures for guilt and empathy, which would help in providing more consistent results between similar studies. The limitations mentioned also make it harder to definitively pinpoint which self-conscious emotion regulates a particular behaviour. For example, an individual may feel guilt or shame from engaging in anti-social behaviour and this may lead to prosocial behaviours, but the individual may not necessarily feel empathetic, and may be trying to reduce their own negative feelings. In another case, an individual may experience guilt from feeling empathetic about someone else’s circumstance. These two examples reflect that self-conscious emotions regulate behaviours and how there is the potential for overlap between certain emotions (e.g., guilt and shame).

For future research it is worth focusing on the development of applications of guilt and empathy in developing prosocial behaviour. Studies should also continue studying the relationship guilt and empathy have with other self-conscious behaviours, and if the two emotions have a positive or negative relationship. Further studies could also look to examine the relationship between guilt and empathy in increasing prosocial behaviours in juveniles and reducing undesirable behaviours including aggression, anger and anti-social behaviour.

Applications into restorative justice are also another avenue that could be explored, with results showing guilt focused restorative justice programs as more effective at generating empathy (Jackson, 2009). However, restorative justice still requires further research as conceptualisation of emotional impact is still not fully realised due to a lack of research examining self-conscious emotions (e.g. guilt, shame, empathy) (Jackson, 2009). Overall research is also still unclear if shame or guilt is more effective at evoking empathy (Jackson, 2009). Lastly, future studies could also further explore guilt and empathy as facilitators for other self-conscious emotions and the potential practical applications of using guilt and empathy to predict the occurrence of negative emotions.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The relationship between guilt and empathy is difficult to conceptualise. This relationship can be observed through behavioural outcomes, predominantly prosocial behaviour. The negative-state relief model, along with other self-conscious emotions, self-reflection and regulation also help to define the relationship between guilt and empathy. Guilt has a predominately positive relationship with empathy. Practically this means if there is an increase in guilt, there is likely to be an increase in empathy and subsequently empathetic behaviour. Empathy for others can also create feelings of guilt through self-reflection and regulation.

There are practical applications that currently exist. Restorative justice makes use of the positive relationship between guilt and empathy to increase the feeling of empathy felt in offenders. Potential future practical applications include increasing prosocial behaviours, predicting the occurrence of behaviours based on emotions experienced and reducing anti-social behaviours (including aggression and anger).

Future research could focus on creating a more universal scale for measuring guilt and empathy to allow for more consistent measuring between studies. Further research could also be done into the conceptual relationship between the two emotions, and also observing the similarities between certain self-conscious emotions. With a more clearly defined theoretical base, practical applications that already exists like restorative justice could be further improved and refined. Potential positive applications like increasing prosocial behaviour could also be applied alongside restorative justice.

Take home message: Guilt and empathy have a complex, positive relationship which can be conceptualised by observing the behaviours that result from these two emotions.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Basil, D., Ridgway, N., & Basil, M. (2007). Guilt and giving: A process model of empathy and efficacy. Psychology and Marketing, 25, 1-23.

Baumeister, R., Stillwell, A., & Heatherton, T. (1994). Guilt: An interpersonal approach. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 243-267.

Eisenberg, N. (2000). Emotion, regulation, and moral development. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 665-697.

Howell, A., Turowski, J., & Buro, K. (2012). Guilt, empathy, and apology. Personality and Individual Differences, 53, 917-922.

Jackson, A. (2009). The Impact of Restorative Justice on the Development of Guilt, Shame, and Empathy Among Participants in a Victim Impact Training Program. Victims & Offenders, 4, 1-24. https://doi: 10.1080/15564880801938185

Joireman, J. (2004). Empathy and the self-absorption paradox II: Self-rumination and self-reflection as mediators between shame, guilt, and empathy. Self and Identity, 3, 225-238.

Leary, M. (2007). Motivational and emotional aspects of the self. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 317-344.

Lindsey, L., Kimo Ah Yun, & Hill, J. (2007). Anticipated guilt as motivation to help unknown others. Communication Research, 34, 468-480.

Lin-Healy, F., & Small, D. (2012). Cheapened altruism: Discounting personally affected prosocial actors. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 117, 269-274.

Pelligra, V. (2011). Empathy, Guilt-aversion and patterns of reciprocity. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Posner, M., & Rothbart, M. (2000). Developing mechanisms of self-regulation. Development and Psychopathology, 12, 427-441.

Roberts, W., Strayer, J., & Denham, S. (2014). Empathy, anger, guilt: Emotions and prosocial behaviour. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 46, 465-474.

Silfver, M., & Helkama, K. (2007). Empathy, guilt, and gender: A comparison of two measures of guilt. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 48, 239-246.

Silfver, M., Helkama, K., Lönnqvist, J., & Verkasalo, M. (2008). The relation between value priorities and proneness to guilt, shame, and empathy. Motivation and Emotion, 32, 69-80.

Stanger, N., Kavussanu, M., & Ring, C. (2012). Put yourself in their boots: Effects of empathy on emotion and aggression. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 34, 208-222.

Tangney, J. P., Youman, K., & Stuewig, J. (2009). Proneness to shame and proneness to guilt. Handbook of individual differences in social behavior, 192-209.

Torstveit, L., Sütterlin, S., & Lugo, R. (2016). Empathy, guilt proneness, and gender: Relative contributions to prosocial behaviour. Europe’S Journal of Psychology, 12, 260-270.

Toussaint, L., & Webb, J. (2005). Gender differences in the relationship between empathy and forgiveness. The Journal of Social Psychology, 145, 673-685.

Van Lange, P. (2008). Does empathy trigger only altruistic motivation? How about selflessness or justice?. Emotion, 8, 766-774.

External links[edit | edit source]