Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Guilt

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Why do we experience guilt, what are its consequences, and how can it be managed?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Guilt is an unpleasant emotion that everyone will experience at some point in their life. It is important to understand guilt as it can have a significant effect on the way that one lives and feels about themselves. Understanding what guilt is, the different types, how it is acquired, if it is helpful and how it can be managed. Understanding these concepts could have a positive impact on one's everyday life and lead them not feeling as guilty as they felt previously. This book chapter explores the following topics in relation to guilt that will hopefully enhance one's quality of life and lead to more affective management of guilt and guilty feelings.

Focus questions

This book chapter will explore the following dimensions relating to guilt:

  1. What is guilt?
  2. Are there different types of guilt?
  3. Why do we experience guilt?
  4. Is guilt adaptive or maladaptive?
  5. Are we able to manage and alleviate guilt?

What is guilt?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Guilt is a result of a transgression of self-perceived wrongdoing. Guilt leads to feelings of remorse and these feelings often dissolve once relationship is resolved.

Guilt is a result of a transgression of self-perceived wrongdoing. Guilt leads to feelings of remorse and these feelings often dissolve once relationship is resolved.

Guilt is often referred to as an unpleasant emotion that is experienced after a transgression of self-perceived wrongdoing (Tignor & Colvin, 2019). The transgression experienced in relation to guilt is often referred to as a moral transgression where a person has violated a norm and this has resulted in harm of another being hurt (Hooge, Nelissen, Bregehman & Zeelenberg, 2009). The transgression often results in the individual feelings remorseful and becoming preoccupied with the transgression that occurred (Hooge et al, 2009). These feelings of guilt can be a fleeting experience, short-lived feelings involving discomfort or long-lived feelings of distress (Tignor & Colvin, 2019). Guilt motivates individuals to seek forgiveness and repair the relationship that was harmed (Hooge et al, 2009). The repairing of a relationship is often referred to as reparative behaviour (Donehue, 2018). This means that guilt can lead to extra investment in the relationship, as a way of elevating the unpleasant feelings that are being experienced. This demonstrates how guilt can be referred to as a moral emotion. Figure 1 gives a visual representation of what guilt may look like and appear to be in the physical world.

Case study

When one feels bad about lying to their significant other, this an example of a time where they feel guilty. When one says how sad they are that a friend can't make their birthday party and that they are disappointed, this is an example of one attempting to guilt someone into coming (making them feel guilty).

Are there different types of guilt?[edit | edit source]

Guilt is an unpleasant emotion as a result of a perceived wrongdoing. While this is a central trait of guilt, there are many different types of guilt. These types of guilt occur as of different transgressions or actions that one has undertaken.

Types of guilt according to the interpersonal guilt questionnaire (IGQ):[edit | edit source]

  • Survivor Guilt
  • Separation Guilt
  • Omnipotent Responsibility Guilt
  • Self Hate Guilt

Survivor Guilt[edit | edit source]

Survivor's guilt refers to when individuals who experience distress as a result of surviving a tragic event while there were others who did not survive. It also involves people feeling bad for their success when others do not have the same fortune (Giammarco & Vernon, 2015). Many people who are suffering from survivors' guilt can engage in self destructive behaviours in an attempt to to satisfy guilty feelings that they are experiencing (Giammarco & Vernon, 2015). Survivor's guilt is a self-destructive type of guilt that can severely effect emotional well-being and functioning. This type of guilt has a direct link to feelings of empathy as it is largely focused on others.

Separation Guilt[edit | edit source]

Separation Guilt occurs when an individual is experiencing guilt when one is away from (or considers themselves distant) from people whom are important to them, such as parents, partners, friends, etc. (Giammarco & Vernon, 2015). Guilt arises as the person believes that they are harming their loved ones by being separated from them (Giammarco & Vernon, 2015). People experience distress as they believe that they are being disloyal to their loved ones.

Omnipotent Responsibility Guilt[edit | edit source]

This type of guilt is experienced as a result of an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the success and happiness of others (Giammarco & Vernon, 2015). When the individual believes that they have failed another person/group they experience strong feelings of guilt (Giammarco & Vernon, 2015). This type of guilt also relates to empathy as it is 'other focused' compared to being focused on the individual. Many people who are suffering from omnipotent responsibility guilt have high levels of altruism. This can lead people to assist others in order to reduced personal distress and therefore alleviate the feeling of guilt.

Self Hate Guilt[edit | edit source]

Self hate guilt is classified as a maladaptive form or guilt (Giammarco & Vernon, 2015). Self hate guilt refers to an individual who complies with a very server critical analysis of themselves from someone who feels a sense of hatred or contempt towards the individual (Giammarco & Vernon, 2015). The person inflicting these feelings are often the individual's parents/guardians. This type of guilt is self-focused and has an indirect relationship with empathy (Giammarco & Vernon, 2015). An individual may have these negative evaluations about themselves out of loyalty to a person who holds significance in their life. People suffering from self hate guilt have higher levels of anorexia nervosa in adolescence compared to non-affected peers.

White Guilt[edit | edit source]

White guilt refers to the awareness of 'ill-gotten' advantage in combination with feelings of gratitude that individuals feel as a result of being 'white' rather than 'black' (Swin & Miller, 1999). A person feels guilty as a result of a perceived unearned privilege often referred to as white privilege. These feelings of guilt arise as a 'white' person believes that they benefit from racism at the expense of 'black' people as well as when one realises how often and how much racism occurs within society (Swin & Miller, 1999). White guilt often leads to a concept referred to as white redemption which refers to whites making a large effort to include and promote ethnic minorities (Swin & Miller, 1999). This can help lead to black equality.

Figure 2. An expectant mother that may experience maternal guilt after the birth of her child.

Maternal Guilt[edit | edit source]

Maternal Guilt refers to the feelings of guilt that arise as a result of a 'mother' fearing that she is failing as a parent in several different regards (Rotkirch & Janhuen, 2010). Infants and toddlers particularly manipulate mothers into care and commitment by activities such as screaming or looking 'cute' when left alone that leads to the mother feeling guilty that they are not providing enough for their child (Rotkirch & Janhuen, 2010). Adult children are also known to manipulate their mothers by competing with siblings for resources and care leaving the mother to feel guilty about giving too much to one child and not enough to her other children (Rotkirch & Janhuen, 2010). Figure 2 shows gives a representation of a mother who may come to experience maternal guilt.

Why do we experience guilt?[edit | edit source]

Different theories surrounding the acquisition of guilt. Different fields of psychology have different theories surrounding how one acquires guilt. These theories range from guilt occurring from a desire to hurt others, guilt being caused by people feeling that they have hurt their loved ones as well as guilt being apart of human nature, via natural selection.

Freudian/Psychoanalytic Theory[edit | edit source]

Up until the 20th century guilt was understood as a negative emotion that was the result of an intrinsic moral conflict (Hooge, Nelissen, Breghmans & Zeelenbergberg, 2009). Freud stated that guilt was the result between a conflict between the id and the superego. This approach to guilt expresses that people feel guilty as a result of an unconscious desire to hurt others in an aggressive manner such as jealousy and anger. (Giammarco & Vernon, 2015). People generate these feelings of guilt as they have anti-social impulses and wishes (O’Connor, Berry, Weiss, Bush, & Sampson, 1997). This theory of guilt explains that guilt is a derived from altruism and a genuine concern for others. This concern for others the part of the reason that we as humans maintain relationships and ties to people that we are close to (O'Connor et al., 1997). The freudian theory also talks about guilt in relation the Oedipal and Electra conflict.

Evolutionary Theory[edit | edit source]

From a young age, humans show skill motivations and general motivations that allow them to make moral choices and judgements that lead to relevant choices (Gazzillo et al., 2019). This led to the suggestion that moral functioning, at least partially, is the result of natural selection and as guilt is a moral behaviour and apart of human nature (Gazzillo et al., 2019).

Guilt from this perspective is thought to have occurred as of climate change. As climate change was occurring, there was a major reduction in food that individuals could obtain alone. As humans had to forge relationships with their non-relatives there was an increase in caring attitudes towards these non-relatives. This collaboration allowed for a 'we' agent to be formed (Gazzillo et al., 2019). Guilt then is thought to occur as of conviction that is derived from violating the 'we' agent that was formed that relates to moral standards. Girls and women have been shown to experience guilt more prominently than men and boys (Rotkirch & Janhuen, 2010)

Developmental Theory[edit | edit source]

Humans from the second year of life are vulnerable to feeling a sense of responsibility for problems that they have not caused. This vulnerability is thought to be the product of egocentrism, a typical aspect of infant functioning. This leads to children to confuse situations that they have contributed to and those that they have not played a part in (Gazzillo et al., 2019). This shows how two-year olds are prone to thinking that they have caused distress to others when in reality they had no role.

Parenting styles are also thought to contribute to one's development of guilt. Parental styles that de-emphasise power assertion has been linked to greater expressions of adaptive guilt as they lead to reflections on harmful consequences. Power assertive parental styles undermine the development of adaptive guilt as it is hindered by the underdevelopment of autonomy regulation. Parental warmth, maternal sensitivity, committed compliance and mutually responsive orientation are all other relative factors that contribute to the development of guilt (Gazzillo et al., 2019).

Control-Mastery Theory[edit | edit source]

The Control-Mastery Theory explores how guilt occurs unconsciously. This theory depicts humans as prosocial, and indicates that guilt arises when humans inflict hurt on loved ones as the result of goal pursuit. This theory differs from the Freudian theory which states that guilt is derived from an unconscious aggressive nature, instead unconscious guilt is presumed to arise out of altruism or genuine concern for others (Gazzillo et al, 2019).

What are the consequences of guilt?[edit | edit source]

There have been many conflicting views on if guilt is an adaptive or maladaptive trait. In different situations guilt acts in different ways. It is important to understand when guilt is helpful and when it is harmful to an individual.

Adaptive[edit | edit source]

Guilt is thought to be adaptive in many situations and in a variety of ways (Hooge et al., 2009). Guilt has been associated with many positive interpersonal and prosocial consequences (Tignor & Colvin, 2019). Guilt can act as a protective mechanism that enhances social relationships by punishing one's interpersonal wrong doings (Hooge et al., 2009). Guilt can act as a motivator for individuals to take responsibility for one's actions. This can lead to reparative intentions that motivates responsibility, compliance and forgiveness. Guilt is especially adaptive in childhood as it allows for a transgression to be 'repaired' allowing for guilty feelings to subside which helps to prevent internalising psychopathology (Donohue & Tully, 2018). It is in this way that guilt can be recognised as a prosocial behaviour.

Maladaptive[edit | edit source]

Guilt can also be maladaptive.  Maladaptive guilt can predict a large amount of negative personal and interpersonal tendencies (Tignor & Colvin, 2019).  Maladaptive guilt can predict loneliness, low relationship quality, neuroticism and feelings of inadequacy (Tignor & Colvin, 2019).  This could explain why people high in self-hate guilt have elevated levels of anorexia nervosa in adolescence compared to peers not as significantly affected by self-hate guilt (Giammarco & Vernon, 2015).  Guilt can be negative and unhelpful when one’s priorities particular relationships at the expense of others (Hooge et al., 2009).  This can lead to deterioration of relationships that evokes guilt so one makes a larger effort again.  This demonstrates how guilt can be a vicious cycle in some situations.

There has been research on the relationship between guilt and psychopathology. Interestingly, they also highlighted that higher levels of guilt and shame were strongly linked to bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety disorders (Muris, Meesters, Heijmans, Hulten, Kaanen, Oerlemans, Stikkelbroeck & Tielemans, 2015)

While above it shows how guilt in excess can be harmful, not having enough guilt is also maladaptive. Individuals who lack guilt have been shown to have higher levels of delinquent behaviour (Docherty, Kabik, Herrera & Boxer, 2018). A study by Muris et al (2015) found that a lack of guilt was correlated to the prevalence of oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder and ADHD in children and teenagers.  Aggressive and antisocial behaviour is correlated with a lack of guilt.

Are we able to manage and alleviate guilt?[edit | edit source]

Prosocial/reparative behaviours are voluntary actions aimed to benefit others (Caprara, Luengo Kanacri, Zuffianò, Gerbino & Pastorelli, 2015). Emotions have an adaptive role in everyday life.  Each individual emotion serves distinct motivational functions according to goals linked to each emotion (Graton & Ric, 2017).  Feelings of humiliation, regret and anguish contribute to feelings and expression of guilt (Caprara, Barbaranelli, Pastorelli, Cermak & Rosza, 2001).

Studies have shown that there is a relationship between the alleviation of guilt and reparative behaviours. From the age of 2 these reparative behaviours grow and result in enhanced cognitive skills such as self-awareness, theory of mind and understanding of social standards (Donohue, 2018). Guilt promotes socialisation processes (Graton & Ric, 2017). Guilt increases reparatory intentions and feelings of responsibility, these guilty feelings promote apologies and act as a motivator to avoid causing harm to people (Graton & Ric, 2017).  Reparative behaviours theoretically should alleviate guilt which can prevent guilt from becoming maladaptive and significantly affecting one’s overall functioning (Donohue, 2018).

Guilt can be a prosocial behaviour as it can strengthen interpersonal relationships.  Studies have shown that after an individual administers electric shocks onto another person, the individual was more likely to help them later on (Xu et al., 2011).  This helping behaviour was also present in people who were watching the shock be administered but did not stop the act.  This shows how feelings of guilt can motivate certain behaviours in order to rid oneself of guilt.  One common way to relieve guilt is by apologising, reconciling and repairing the relationship (Xu, Bègue & Shankland, 2011).  

There are other strategies that one uses to manage feelings of guilt that were outlined in the research conducted by Xu and colleagues (2011). Denial of responsibility is where one claims that the actions were unintentional, denies and may defuse the responsibility.  Individuals disregard the harm that they inflicted and make external attribution in order to suppress feelings of guilt. Reframing is also a common technique.  Reframing is where one changes their state of mind into justifying their behaviour as ‘the victim deserves it’.  This is especially evident in rape cases (see Case Study box below). Justification is where one acts in a dehumanising way, by perceiving the individual as animal like, bearing less than human characteristics in order to not feel like they inflicted harm onto a human being. Guilty feelings may also subside if one drinks alcohol after a transgression, is reinforced by approval (could be in the form of money) or if the act is in defence or revenge (Xu et al., 2011).

Case study

The perpetrator inflicting the rape does not/is not made to feel guilt, but the victim does as they should not have been wearing the clothes that they wore or walking around late, etc.  The perpetrator is able to ‘justify’ their behaviour and the victim feels that they are in the wrong.  This shows how reframing is a dangerous response to managing feelings of guilt and should not be used lightly.

There are many ways one is able to manage and alleviate feelings of guilt, however, not all of the techniques are morally right.

The use of prosocial and reparative behaviours are an effective and healthy way to manage guilt, however the strategies such as denial of responsibility, reframing, justification, drinking, approval and revenge are poor coping mechanisms.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Guilt is a self-conscious emotion. Guilt is often referred to as an unpleasant emotion that is experienced after a transgression of self-perceived wrongdoing. There are many different types of guilt that one may experience. These types of guilt including survivor guilt, separation guilt, omnipotent responsibility guilt, self hate guilt, white guilt and maternal guilt. There have been different theories relating to how feelings of guilt arise.

Freudian Theory surrounding the acquisition of guilt says the guilt is an intrinsic moral conflict between the id and the superego.  People feel guilty as of an unconscious desire to hurt others.  The evolutionary theory explains that guilt is a result of natural selection that occurred as of climate change, humans being experience guilt as of a ‘we’ agent being violated.  Developmental theory states that humans have a born tendency to feel a sense of responsibility for problems that they have not caused as a result of egocentrism.  There is also control-mastery theory which states that guilt occurs as of people thinking that they have hurt others in pursuit of his/her goals.

Guilt can have both adaptive and maladaptive traits. Guilt can be adaptive as it has interpersonal and prosocial consequences in repairing transgressions where there has been a perceived wrongdoing.  Guilt can also be maladaptive.  Guilt is harmful when one may prioritise certain relationships at the expense of others, or when it is experienced in excess or not enough.  Excessive guilt is harmful as it can be related to bipolar, depression and anxiety disorders.  A lack of guilt is harmful as it can be linked to high levels of delinquent behaviour as well as an increase in conduct disorder, OCD as well as ADHD.  Aggressive and antisocial behaviours are also correlated with a lack of guilt.

Reparative and prosocial behaviours help to manage feelings of guilt. Reparative behaviours can result in enhanced cognitive skills and an increased self-awareness and social standards. Feelings of guilt promote apologies and act as a motivator to avoid causing harm. There are other strategies that one may use to rid oneself of feelings of guilt, however these behaviours are not always morally right. Techniques such as denial of responsibility, reframing, justification, drinking, approval and revenge are poor coping mechanisms and should not be one ‘go to’ in order to stop these unpleasant feelings.

Guilt is a multidimensional construct that affects one's everyday life. As guilt is a self-conscious emotion, it should continue to be studied as guilt can have significant impacts on individuals everyday functioning. One major limitation in the research is that guilt is usually studied in conjunction with other emotions such as shame or empathy, and while this is important, it is also necessary to understand guilt as its own construct.

See also[edit | edit source]

  1. Guilt (Book chapter, 2018)
  2. [[Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Guilt and shame|Guilt and shame]] (Book chapter, 2018)
  3. Guilt and empathy (Book chapter, 2018)
  4. Guilt and motivation (Book chapter, 2014)
  5. Guilt (emotion) (Wikipedia)

References[edit | edit source]

Caprara, G., Barbaranelli, C., Pastorelli, C. Cermak, I., & Rosza, S. (2001). Facing Guilt: Role of Negative Affectivity, Need for Reparation, and Fear of Punishment in Leading to Prosocial Behaviour and Aggression.European Journal of Personality. 15, 219-237, DOI: 10.1002/per.402.

Caprara, G., Luengo Kanacri, B., Zuffianò, A., Gerbino, M., & Pastorelli, C. (2015). Why and How to Promote Adolescents’ Prosocial Behaviours: Direct, Mediated and Moderated Effects of the CEPIDEA School-Based Program. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 44, 2211-2229, DOI:10.1007/s10964-015-0293-1.

Docherty, M., Kubik, J., Herrera, C., & Boxer, P. (2018)., Early maltreatment is associated with greater risk of conduct problems and lack of guilt in adolescence. Child Abuse & Neglect, 79, 173-182.

Donohue, M & Tully, E. (2018). Reparative prosocial behaviours alleviate children's guilt. Developmental Psychology, 55 (10), 2102-2113.

Gazzillo, F., De Luca, E., Dazzi, N., Curtis, J., & Bush, M. (2019). New development in understanding morality: Between evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, and control-mastery theory. American Psychological Association.

Giammarco, E., & Vernon, P. (2015). Interpersonal Guilt and the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 81, 96-101,

Graton, A. & Ric, F. (2017). How guilt leads to reparation? Exploring the processes underlying the effects of guilt. Motivation and Emotion. 41, 343-352. DOI: 10.1007/s11031-017-9612-z

Hooge, I., Nelissen, R., Breugelmans, S. & Zeelenberg, M. (2009). What is moral about guilt? Acting 'prosaically' at the disadvantage of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(3), 462-473.

L.E. O’Connor, J.W. Berry, J. Weiss, M. Bush, H. Sampson. (1997). Interpersonal guilt: The development of a new measure. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53, 73-89, 10.1002/(SICI)1097-46

Muris, P., Meesters, C., Heijmans, J., Hulten, ., Kaanen, L., Oerlemans, B., Stikkelbroeck, T., & Tielemans, T., (2015), Lack of guilt, guilt and shame: a multi-informant study on the relations between self-conscious emotions and psychopathology in clinically referred children and adolescents, European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 25, 383-396. doi: 10.1007/s00787-015-0749-6.

Rotkirch, A., & Janhunen, K. (2010). Maternal Guilt. Evolutionary Psychology, 8, 90-106,

Swim, J., & Miller, D. (1999). White Guilt: Its Antecedents and Consequences for Attitudes Toward Affirmative Action. Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 25, 500-514.

Tignor, S., & Colvin, C. (2019). The Meaning of Guilt: Reconciling the Past to Inform the Future. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(6), 989–1010.

Xu, H., Bègue, L., & Shankland, R., (2011). Guilt and Guiltlessness: An Integrative Review. Social and Personality Psychology. 5, 440-457, DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2011.00364.x

External links[edit | edit source]

  • Why shame and guilt are functional for mental health[1]
  • Brené Brown on The Difference Between Guilt and Shame[2]
  1. "Why Shame and Guilt Are Functional For Mental Health". 2018-01-22. Retrieved 2019-08-31.
  2. "Brené Brown: The Difference Between Guilt and Shame". Farnam Street. 2014-10-19. Retrieved 2019-08-31.