Guilt is an unpleasant emotion that appears when you have committed a fault or broken a rule and hurt others.
To get rid of it, it is usually enough to right your wrongs or apologize. Thanks to this emotion, we learn to live in society.
But sometimes you feel guilty when there is no reason to be and no remedy is possible… It is then more complicated to get better again. So is guilt a healthy emotion? and does it serve any useful purpose?

GUILT IS A MORAL EMOTION

guilt serves as a moral compass

As every morning of the week, you leave your home and go to work. Not far from the bus stop, you see a person lying on the ground, wrapped in a sleeping bag. A homeless person that you are used to seeing.

On this winter morning, the weather is cool and you think you should check he’s okey. But the bus is coming. You go up; work doesn’t wait.

On board, you think back to that unfortunate man. You feel like you have done something wrong, and you feel like a ball in your belly. You feel guilty. So a little later in the day, when a call for donations for a charity arrives by chance on your mailbox, you decide to make a gesture.

As this short scenario illustrates, guilt is an unpleasant emotional experience, relatively frequent, and involving a self-evaluation of our actions.

To experience it, we must feel that we have violated a moral standard. And this transgression must be of a nature to have caused harm to others.

For these reasons, guilt is sometimes referred to as moral emotion, self-conscious, but also as social emotion, since it requires a form of confrontation with others and the external environment. One of the functions of moral emotions would be to guide our behaviour towards the collective interest, to the detriment of individual interest.

GUILT IS A PARADOXICAL EMOTION

the purpose of guilt is paradoxical

Although painful, the feeling of guilt felthas encouraged, in this example, a behaviour that is beneficial to society – giving to the community.

Indeed, as early as the eighteenth century, researchers such as the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith examined the social utility of this emotion and the fact that it was accompanied by a desire to repair a fault.

Far from being just a mental slag to be eliminated at all costs, guilt serves as a warning when a person has suffered damage and a behaviour must be carried out to restore the situation.

The ability to experience these types of emotions is not innate and requires early childhood learning. As a result, some people are more likely than others to feel guilty.

THE APPEARANCE OF GUILT

how does guilt appears

Unlike the emotions described as primary, such as fear, anger, sadness or joy, which are felt very early in a child’s development, self-conscious emotions, such as shame and guilt, appear later, usually around the age of 3.

Recent research has shown that “restorative” behaviours can be observed from the age of 2, but these are caused more by a feeling of sympathy towards the victim than by a real emotion of guilt felt by the child.

To feel guilty, a person must first be able to properly assess his or her own behaviour as the cause of the harm, and be aware of the moral norms that may be violated. This is derived from our families, from educational institutions and more broadly from the society in which we live.

Moreover, in early childhood, guilt is not yet identified as an emotion in its own right and tends to be confused with shame. The American psychologist June Tangney, a specialist in moral emotions, has even shown that children are only able to distinguish events that cause shame from those that cause guilt fromthe start of the age of eight. And what differentiates them in the first place are the acts that follow from them: while guilt is accompanied by a desire to repair the fault committed, to restore a damaged relationship, shame is more like running away and hiding.

GUILT OR SHAME?

shame is different from guilt

The experience of guilt therefore appears early in our lives as a tool for regulating social ties. Parents or teachers use this lever as a method of education: “You have harmed such a person, apologize or fix the mistake you have made.”

Thus, frequently, researchers consider this feeling, if not as good, then at least as socially necessary, as opposed to shame, which would be more deleterious and too self-centered.

However, even these conclusions need to be qualified. For example, it has been shown that shame can also lead to reparative behaviour. Moreover, the use of guilt is part of a cultural context; it is particularly salient in our Western and individualistic societies, sometimes referred to as “societies of guilt”, but is less apparent in collectivist societies, such as Japan, which rather structure their social cohesion around shame.

The use of guilt may also have been a driving force for altruism in religions such as Catholicism, which place particular emphasis on the notions of sin and confession.

FROM APOLOGY TO ALTRUISM

guilt promotes altruism

In any case, the main objective of the person who feels guilty is to get out of this painful emotional state. Recent psychological research tends to associate each emotion with a specific behaviour. A person who is afraid is trying to escape. Some angry others become aggressive. Whoever feels guilty wants to make up for their mistake. But how?

Guilt As Moral Debt

moral debt is a consequence of debt

First, it is a matter of restoring the altered link with the harmed person. Guilt reinforces the sense of personal responsibility towards others: in German, the same word, Schuld, refers to both “debt” and “guilt”.

Researchers have shown that this feeling encourages confessions of misconduct and apologies. If you leave late for an appointment with a friend and let him wait in the cold and rain, you will probably start by making amends. Then, it is likely that you will offer him a coffee, to warm him up and make him forgive you.

Similarly, guilt has an impact on future actions by reducing the risk of recidivism of the wrongdoing: the next time you have an appointment with this friend, it is likely that you will take your precautions when leaving early…

Guilt And Altruism

feeling guilty pushes you to help others

In the example of the homeless person mentioned above, the feeling of guilt arises even though the sufferer is no longer present to receive compensation.

Studies have shown that, even in the absence of the hurt person, guilt promotes restorative behaviour that will then benefit others. It represents a powerful “altruism enhancer” by increasing our tendency to do good deeds later.

This effect was measured in an experiment in which Timothy Ketelaar from the University of California at Los Angeles and Wing Tung Au from the University of Hong Kong offered participants games of “social dilemmas”. During the various game turns, it was possible to adopt a cooperative or, on the contrary, individualistic behaviour when allocating sums of money allocated by the experimenters.

The results showed that participants who were induced guilt then adopted more altruistic attitudes in gambling than those who were not experiencing this emotion.

For A Good Conscience

good conscience

Similar to the example of homelessness, other studies have shown that guilt promotes charitable giving or ecological behaviour. The principle is always the same: the person who feels guilty tries to reduce his negative emotional feelings by giving himself “good conscience”, even if the restorative behaviour takes place towards complete strangers.

More surprising: the repair can be observed without the emotion being really felt. Indeed, guilt would be so unpleasant to feel that the mere prospect of having to face it (anticipating the feeling) would lead to avoiding any behaviour likely to cause it.

This concept of “early guilt” is central to this vision of emotion as a regulator. Sentiment plays the role of a kind of deterrent… Some people are more likely than others to experience this “aversion to guilt” and therefore tend to avoid situations that could trigger it.

Ultimately, the forms that repair can take are many and varied. Guilty feelings, or their anticipation, are at the root of a large number of beneficial behaviours in social interactions. For these reasons, the use of guilt is common in prevention and persuasion messages.

PREVENTION CAMPAIGNS

some prevention campaigns use the feeling of guilt

“You just forgot a blinker, it was just a little detail”, “Difficult to digest, every grain of rice represents one dead person a day”, “what goes around comes around ». These are three prevention campaigns, respectively for road safety (2008), Action against hunger (2016) and the Italian environmental NGO Legambiente (2010).

These messages invoke fairly simple processes: generating guilt and proposing ways to redeem oneself, by adopting prosocial behaviour (e.g. driving slower, changing eating habits, or making a donation to the NGO in question).

The use of this feeling is similar here to other types of persuasive messages based on other emotions such as fear – the fear of disease used to promote smoking cessation.

But studies on the effectiveness of this type of message are mixed. It is recognized that a moderate level of guilt is beneficial in promoting the desired behaviour.

On the other hand, being too insistent is counterproductive. This phenomenon, known to psychologists of persuasion, is called “reactance”: if you feel deprived of your freedom or too constrained, you will seek to regain a margin of manoeuvre, even if it means acting in the opposite direction to what is being asked of you.

Reactance therefore acts as a defence mechanism when a person perceives a too strong threat to their freedom of action. A process that is familiar to some smokers who want to light a cigarette as soon as they are advised to quit…

FEEL GUILTY, YES, BUT NOT TOO MUCH, AND NOT TOO LONG

The phenomenon of reactance is one of the main obstacles to the effectiveness of the guilt / reparation relationship.

Guilty, yes, but not too guilty. In a series of experimental studies on pro-environmental behaviour, it has been shown that guilt is associated with more ecological behaviour when restorative options are offered in a subtle way.

Presented with insistence, for example with very explicit slogans such as “it is essential that everyone mobilizes to save the planet! “, they cause reactance. This applies to both prevention messages and interpersonal relationships: if you remind your spouse too much that he or she has forgotten your birthday, it is more likely to cause conflict than an apology in the form of a bouquet of flowers…

THE DOBBY EFFECT (THE HARRY POTTER ELF)

But sometimes no repair is possible. For example, the injured person is not present or no altruistic behaviour is possible in the short term.

Marcel Zeelenberg and Rob Nelissen, from the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, observed that people who feel guilty but cannot “repair” tend to punish themselves. A phenomenon called the Dobby effect, named after the masochistically inclined house elf in the Harry Potter series novels. Beyond the light aspect of the reference, these results provide a lead for another pitfall in the feeling of guilt.

Indeed, in some situations, guilt is not justified and becomes damaging. For example, almost a third of French employees who go on holiday feel guilty if they disconnect from their smartphone or emails during their rest period. In general, because they have professional obligations to respect or because they anticipate the workload to manage upon return.

In a similar, but much more serious register, survivors of major disasters (e.g. plane crashes) or victims of sexual abuse often report this strange feeling of guilt, even though they have not committed any fault. On the other hand, the impression of having been wronged is very real: “On the plane, I took the place of another who did not survive. “And the major difficulty comes from the fact that if the emotional feeling is, for its part, very present, direct reparation is, for its part, impossible.

THE EFFECTS OF GUILT

Some people then overcome this sense of undue guilt, for example by engaging with associations or in the form of activism, but others suffer more mental ruminations or sometimes engage in punitive behaviours such as the “Dobby effect”.

In addition, excessive and prolonged guilt increases the risk of suffering from mental disorders, such as depression, chronic anxiety or professional burn-out. It is therefore acceptable to feel guilty, but in a moderate way, and not for too long or for nothing!

COLLECTIVE GUILT

Another characteristic of guilt is that we sometimes experience this feeling on behalf of our group of belonging. Since the end of the Second World War, Germans, although too young or not even born at the time of the War, have regularly reported feeling guilty for the atrocities committed.

Similarly, in 1998, during the Football World Cup in France, a group of German hooligans attacked a French gendarme. After being severely hit on the head, Daniel Nivel remained in a coma for several weeks and still suffers from severe after-effects. The attack created a very strong sense of guilt and solidarity in Germany, which continues to this day – the German Football Association regularly invites the gendarme.

Much social science research has focused on the particular feeling of collective guilt: it seems paradoxical to feel responsible and to want to make reparation for acts committed by other people, including at other times. How can this be explained? This is certainly because the group is of particular importance to our social identity: our home groups challenge us in part and make us “solidary” to their actions, even though we have not participated in them and do not adhere to them.

As the American psychologist Nyla Branscombe has shown, the behavioural consequences of this collective guilt do not differ much from those of individual guilt, with first and foremost a search for reparation.

Guilt is therefore a multi-faceted emotion. Depending on the point of view, the same emotion of guilt is considered as a social emotion necessary to regulate our interactions, an emotion that allows altruistic behaviour to be triggered, or on the contrary as a deleterious and disabling feeling.

WHAT PART OF THE BRAIN DEALS WITH GUILT?

Difference Between Guilt And Other Moral Emotions

How to distinguish between different moral emotions? subjective feelings of embarrassment, shame or guilt are close. These emotions share common characteristics: they are related to an assessment of one’s own behaviour and to having violated a moral or social norm.

But they also differ in several respects. Embarrassment is a less intense emotion than the other two and occurs after the violation of a social convention (for example, arriving late in a classroom). Guilt is characterized by the willingness to make reparation, not necessarily shame. Guilt is based on the actions committed, unlike shame which disqualifies the entire individual: “I did wrong” versus “I am a bad person.”

Neuroscientists have sought to affirm these differences by studying the neural circuits involved in the feeling of moral emotions.

The Brain Regions Responsible For Guilt

brain region responsible for guilt
Brain regions responsible for embarassement, shame, and guilt

Embarrassment is associated with the activation of the dorsomedian prefrontal cortex (related in particular to the ability to be aware of oneself and one’s actions), the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (involved in particular in motor inhibition), as well as visual areas. This reveals the importance of the “physical” situation of the self in embarrassment: being seen and caught in the blur of a social “error”.

Shame and guilt are both associated with activation of the insular cortex (or insula), a region involved in self-awareness, interpersonal relationships and the feeling of other emotions such as disgust. These two emotions are also related to an activation of the anterior dorsal cingulate cortex. The latter is involved in the perception of pain, the detection of errors, but also the subjective feeling of anger. Hence the high intensity of these social emotions.

But a number of brain areas appear more specific to guilt, such as the anterior ventral cingulate cortex. This region is associated with the ability to plan appropriate responses, which is consistent with the challenge of guilt as a trigger for restorative behaviour. Guilt is in fact the only moral emotion that activates areas such as the temporoparietal junction, linked to what is called the “theory of mind”. It is the ability to attribute mental states to others. Anomalies in these regions have thus been found in some psychopathic criminals, unable, for example, to feel guilty as a result of their actions.

Social Emotions In The Brain

obscure and positive sides of emotions

Current research seeks to sharpen the understanding of the processes involved in the experience of these types of emotions, in particular by revealing their cerebral foundations.

The objective is to determine in which cases the feeling of guilt makes us switch either to the “positive” or “obscure” side of the behaviours. At the same time, another emotion, shame, long perceived as the “maleficent sister” of guilt, is gradually being rehabilitated for its role in prosocial behaviour.

Today, neuroscience researchers are pre-determining the neural and physiological foundations of these emotions. With an underlying idea: to better understand the importance of individual emotions in the organization of our social life.

IN SUMMARY

We’ve all felt guilty before – it’s unpleasant. Yet, thanks to this emotion, we know how to distinguish good from evil and live in society. As long as you don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by uncontrolled guilt.


Sources:

  • C. Bastin et al., Feelings of shame, embarrassment and guilt and their neural correlates : A systematic review. (link)

  • A. Graton et al.,Reparation or reactance? The inflence of guilt on reaction to persuasive communication (link)

  • I. E. De Hooge et al., What is moral about guilt ? Acting “prosocially” at the disadvantage of others. (link)

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