Editor’s Column – Guilt Issue


Me for ERAndrea Scarantino, Department of Philosophy & Neuroscience Institute, Georgia State University

What is the emotion shared by adulterers, overeaters and survivors? What is the emotion Italian mothers are legendarily skilled at eliciting in their offspring?  What is the emotion you should be feeling if you are an ISRE member but have not paid your dues? Guilt, guilt, guilt! We are all familiar with the feelings of guilt. The nagging discomfort, the forlorn rumination on deeds done or not done, the yearning to make amends and restore trust with those we have harmed or with our dejected self. Boy, that hurts.

Guilt has a way to taint otherwise alluring activities, many of which have to do with the pleasures of the senses. Who wants to pursue extra conjugal thrills or eat chocolate cake by the barrel, when guilt is the price to pay?  Well, a few of us do. But many more abstain from what they take to be ephemeral rewards, because they are unwilling to pay the long-term costs of a guilty conscience.

And there lies the magic of guilt as an anticipated rather than experienced emotion. In order not to feel it, we act to protect our most treasured relationships from injury, and we self-regulate in ways that are good for us in the long run. Without guilt patrolling the self’s boundaries, a number of industrious members of society would lie in dark basements in underpants, and gorge on cheese nachos and martinis while binge watching Netflix.

Guilt has a way to turn us from Aesopian grasshoppers who sing all summer into ants who store up food for the winter. But not all is well and good with guilt. Sometimes we feel it in circumstances in which atonement is not an option, because guilt does not come from something we have done, or because what we have done can never be undone. And in such cases guilt is like an unruly watercourse that never dries out, burrowing ever deeper in its bed and muddying everything in its wake.

Primo Levi has described in many of his books his guilt for surviving the concentration camp of Auschwitz – although he often labeled his own feelings as ones of shame, reminding us of the fine line that separates these two forms of self-blame. Levi was one of the approximately 7,000 Italian Jews to be deported to Germany by the Nazi regime. Of these, only a few hundreds were able to return home.

For the remaining 40 years of his life, Levi struggled with “the shadow of a suspicion”, namely that “each man is his brother’s Cain, that each of us…has usurped his neighbor’s place and lived in his stead”.  It is only a suspicion, he acknowledged, “but it gnaws at us; it has nestled deeply like a woodworm; although unseen from the outside, it gnaws and rasps” (DS, 81-82).

Levi was convinced that in the Lager only “[t]he worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators…the spies… that is, the fittest; all the best died” (DS, 82). On April 11, 1987, one year after publishing his last heartbreaking excursion down the rabbit hole of the Holocaust – The Drowned and the Saved (DS) – Primo Levi died of likely suicide.

In this issue of Emotion Researcher, we examine guilt, this potent, multifaceted, and profoundly human emotion, from a variety of research perspectives, as our loyal readers have come to expect. We are going to ask four main questions about guilt. First, what is guilt? Second, when and how does guilt develop in children? Third, what are the functions of guilt? Fourth, which evolutionary scenarios best explain the origins of guilt?

We are going to be assisted in our exploration by some of the major figures in guilt research in contemporary psychology, and by a crop of leading philosophers who are starting to apply game theory to the study of the evolution of guilt with potentially transformative results.

We begin with Michael Lewis’ seminal cognitive-attributional theory of guilt, according to which guilt is one of a roster of self-conscious emotions that emerge once we evaluate either our actions or our self as below or above the standards, rules and goals (SRGs) we hold. Roughly, guilt is caused by evaluating one’s actions as a failure with respect to the SRGs, whereas shame is caused by evaluating one’s self as a whole as a failure with respect to the SRGs.  Lewis explores the developmental trajectory of guilt, proposing that it emerges after age 3, when children become capable of gauging their responsibilities with respect to normative standards.

Ent and Baumeister offer us an overview of the possible functions of guilt, as well as their eliciting circumstances. They argue that guilt is produced in three main sets of circumstances: (1) transgressions against others, (2) production of resentment in others even when such resentment is not one’s fault and (3) self-regulatory failure. They suggest that many of these forms of guilt have a common thread, namely protecting others or the self from the damage produced by failure to override one’s selfish impulses. They conclude with an analysis of how guilt can be managed.

O’Connor brings the resources of game theory to bear on the question of the evolution of guilt. She points out that game theory, which aims to model the evolution of strategic behavior, has long neglected the emotions because it has considered them to be feelings rather than behaviors. As she points out, however, insofar as emotions have a characteristic set of associated behaviors, nothing stands in the way of modeling them game-theoretically. This seems to be the case for guilt, which is associated with apology, gift-giving, self-punishment, and a number of other distinctive behaviors. O’Connor’s analysis individuates theoretical circumstances in which the evolution of guilt would be more likely, which include the presence of reciprocation, punishment, repeated interactions and transparency. She notes in conclusion that these circumstances held in early hominid groups.

Deem and Ramsey, finally, discuss whether guilt is likely to have been selected by means of individual selection, group selection or both. Two of the most popular models for the evolution of guilt – the self-recrimination model and the commitment model – assume that guilt produces individual advantages of various sorts. Deem and Ramsey urge readers to consider another possibility, namely that guilt may have evolved because it is good for the group despite being bad for the individual. On this view, the evolution of guilt would follow the model of the evolution of altruism, which under certain game-theoretic circumstances can spread throughout populations in spite of being individually disadvantageous.

In his ISRE Matters column, Arvid Kappas, ISRE’s President, offers a first-person perspective on guilt, describing first some of the mental games he plays to avoid feeling guilty in his professional dealings, and then his personal take on the thorny issue of collective guilt that many Germans still feel about the Holocaust. Arvid concludes with some reflections on the range of emotions he felt – some positive, some negative – when he observed the public responses in Germany and in the USA to the thousands of refugees arriving in Europe over the past year.

This issue’s Spotlight is on June Gruber from the University of Colorado Boulder, who studies positive emotions, with special focus on their negative effects. Positive emotions are generally defined in terms of their valence – they feel good! – and the assumption has long been that they are adaptive. June considers a variety of circumstances in which this is not the case, which range from the maladaptive effects of striving for happiness to the maladaptive effects of euphoric states that lead to risky behaviors. Of special note is also the Experts in Emotion Interview Series June directs, which is available to all and a very helpful introduction to the main themes of contemporary emotion science.

Last but not least, this Emotion Researcher contains a fascinating interview with Jennifer Lerner, one of the world’s leading experts on emotions and decision-making. Jennifer shares numerous poignant memories of her childhood and upbringing, and discusses with admirable candidness what it is like to grow up with a serious chronic autoimmune disease, and how her personal struggles have affected her research trajectory.  Jennifer also provides us with a substantive and wide-ranging summary of her highly influential theory of how emotions affect decision-making, concluding with an exploration of how the science of decisions can lead to better public policies in the areas of public health and national security. And do check Jennifer’s recipe, which easily takes the cake as the least labor intensive recipe ever shared in the pages of this publication!

As usual, be in touch with comments, ideas for future issues, reports about especially promising young researchers, and whatever else strikes your fancy. To whet your appetite, let me also tell you that a new issue of Emotion Researcher is in the works, which focuses on emotions in the law. Enjoy the issue!

Previous Editor’s Columns

Editor’s Column – Guilt Issue

Editor’s Column – Understanding Love Issue

Editor’s Column – Facial Expressions Issue

Editor’s Column – Emotional Intelligence Issue

Editor’s Column – Musical Emotions Issue

Editor’s Column – Emotions and Social Engagement Issue

Editor’s Column – Understanding Disgust Issue

Editor’s Column – Emotional Brain Issue

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