ISRE Matters – Guilt Issue


kappasArvid Kappas, Psychology, Jacobs University Bremen, ISRE’s President

Guilty as Charged

May 2016 – It was actually predictable that I may be late in writing this column. Nothing more appropriate than a guilt-ridden column for the Guilt Issue of Emotion Researcher. But, given that I’m not that late, it’s not yet full-blown makes-me-experience-difficulties-sleeping guilt yet. In fact, as I try to use some serious introspection, I would say that I currently feel nothing more than a vague discomfort combined with the anticipation of more guilt to come if I end up being really late. Something like a foreshadowing of guilt. Is it a fear of guilt? No, fear would be too strong a term. A dread of guilt? No, I would describe it perhaps as a generalized state of unease – moderately negative, slightly arousing.

But I can definitely say that part of the reason why I am sitting right now at my computer desk at this late hour, instead of pursuing something more relaxing, is that I want to avoid experiencing future guilt. In other words, what drives me now, as far as I can tell, is not an occurrent state of guilt – the deadline has just passed! – but an anticipation of how guilty I would feel in the future if I let too much time go by after the deadline.

In fact, if I have to be completely honest, things are even more complicated. I have something else to do for which I am already really late. And if I wait for too long to start (and finish) this column, then that other task will become even more overdue. So getting this out of the way   clears my schedule for the other task (a review if you must know). I am basically hosting in my head a battle of anticipated guilts, and acting so as to prevent the bigger anticipated guilt from actually occurring.

As I try to reconstruct just how I feel at this moment, I remember that I actually did feel guilty today, but on account of something completely different. Earlier this evening, I decided I needed some chicken and fries for dinner to lift my spirit after a difficult day, despite the fact that this would clash with some nutritional deal that I had made with myself (and some economical concerns – I had some leftovers in the fridge that were perfectly OK, but not as satisfying). That made me feel real guilt. What I am now realizing is that writing this column is helping me offset that guilt. Sure, I violated a commitment to healthy living, but look at me now: I am doing the right thing and I won’t feel guilty about the late column!

Interestingly, this makes me feel less guilty about the chicken violation through a sort of redemption transfer, a cousin of excitation transfer I guess. Does that sound rational? No, it does not. But these are the everyday mind games I play, and some of you perhaps do so as well. In fact, as I take a broader perspective on this topic, I realize that my day is punctuated by many episodes of the “chicken and column” variety. I do many things to avoid feeling guilty in the future, and these help me feel less guilty in the present about unrelated things. An interesting case of the complex ways in which emotions affect our lives.

I have been pretty forthcoming in confessing my guilt issues, and even referred to some low intensity feelings as guilt when some might deny that they merit the ‘guilt’ label in the first place. There are people who are very different from me in this respect, in the sense that they deny to ever be driven by guilt. I guess for some people the word ‘guilt’ is written with a capital g: ‘Guilt’. The sort of Guilt that is elicited by cheating on your partner, committing  a crime or hurting someone.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are some people who extend guilt elicitors to actions for which they are not personally responsible. For example, depending on which culture you come from, you might feel guilt because your brother cheated on his partner, or your mother committed a crime. Or because you are born from people whose ancestors killed millions of innocent people in Nazi concentration camps. This is a painful issue every German of my generation has had to confront.

Last year, Friedrich von Weizsäcker, who had been German president from 1984 to 1994 died. I will never forget a speech, which I believe I witnessed live on television in 1985, where he addressed the issue of collective guilt of the German people for the horrors of the Nazi regime. Here is a quote from his speech, which I drew from the Wikipedia article also linked above:

“There is no such thing as the guilt or innocence of an entire nation. Guilt is, like innocence, not collective but personal. There is discovered or concealed individual guilt. There is guilt which people acknowledge or deny. […] All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by the consequences and liable for it. […] We Germans must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion. […] There can be no reconciliation without remembrance”.

This speech triggered in me and in many of my friends a lot of reflections about the appropriateness of feeling guilty for actions one did not commit. Clearly, in some cultures this would not be complicated to understand at all – but it is particularly in highly independently construed cultures where guilt is a personal and individual thing, but it need not, and we should always be aware that self-construal interacts with feelings of guilt. Obviously. Dealing with these issues it becomes also important that there is a loose connection between guilt, as in being factually responsible, and guilt as in the feeling towards an event or behavior.

Another topic of great interest in this neighborhood concerns the distinction between guilt and other self-conscious emotions like shame. I know that students sometimes get confused when it comes to explaining the difference between shame and guilt and non-emotion specialists do so all the time. Emotions researchers tend to distinguish guilt from shame in terms of how global one’s assessment of failure with respect to norms is: we feel guilty about our normatively defective actions, and ashamed when our whole self is appraised as defective.

For me, as an emotion researcher, the last few weeks of news about the refugee crisis in Europe and especially in Germany were a reminder of the complex relationship between guilt and shame.  Public responses to the thousands of refugees arriving in Germany produced a wide range of emotions in me. I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. I was positively impressed that many people went out of their way to volunteer time and money to welcome refugees to Germany. But clearly there was much bad and ugly going on as well, with many episodes of xenophobia and racism, a somber reminder of Germany’s dark past. This led to a complicated interplay between shame and guilt. I felt ashamed witnessing acts of verbal and physical violence against refugees in part because I feel guilt regarding German past.

This guilt makes me want members of my nation to atone for its past sins, or at least be sensitive in this regard, and when they do not, I feel shame. An interesting control-condition is offered by my reactions to the same ugliness coming from the USA. When I hear about American voters and politicians treating refugees as human garbage, I feel embarrassed by them, but not necessarily ashamed. What is going on with me when German extremists insult refugees or minorities is what Germans call Fremdschämen:

Fremdschämen. Verb. German. Most emotion specialists will have Schadenfreude in their toolbox of weird emotions for which no direct translation exists in their language. Well, rejoice, here is another one for your records. Fremdschämen is a German word that refers to a sort of shame that you might feel when watching someone else do something very inappropriate or embarrassing. There are elements of vicarious perception, or putting yourself in someone’s else’s shoes in there, but it is not necessary that the other person is really aware of the situation (yet) or is acknowledging being ashamed. For those who are familiar with the TV series Frasier – this was much about Fremdschämen. I am not aware of an English translation of the concept. So next time you say: “German language has a term for being amused by the misfortune of another” you can add “but they also have a term for being ashamed for someone else’s inappropriate behavior”.

So, as we have taken a rollercoaster ride visiting some of my guilt issues small and large (omitting others, like the business with the gym that has not seen me in a long time, professional contexts where I had to use institutional power in a way that makes me cringe as an individual, and many other juicy things that are not fit for print here or elsewhere), you will hopefully have considered some of your own personal guilt issues.

Of course, you may not call guilt exactly what I call guilt, so you may end up denying being driven by guilt to the extent that I am just because we use words differently. The point is that  ordinary language is not great at capturing some of the subtle distinctions between guilt and related phenomena. The fact that there arguably are no specific facial expression, peripheral physiological pattern, or patterns of brain activity characteristic of guilt makes collecting data about guilt even more complex.

This is yet another area in which an interdisciplinary approach can help us by shedding light in the many faces of guilt, and ultimately improve our understanding of what we talk about when we talk about guilt. Some of the best recent interdisciplinary work is covered in this issue of the Emotion Researcher, which I very much welcome. There are many other avenues the study of guilt should pursue. Just to mention a few, we should better understand clinical cases of people who do not seem to feel guilt, the role of guilt in psychopathology, the role of guilt as a political and religious issue, the communicative value of guilt expressions, and of course how guilt affects legal responsibility.

What I find most fascinating about guilt, and what I have tried to convey in this column, is how complex and pervasive the impact of guilt is on human motivation. I can conceive of the impact of guilt on motivation using an analogy that we navigate networks of objects that are linked to guilt, or have the potential to be associated with guilt and that attract us or repel us in a field as imagined by Kurt Lewin. This reflection leads me to ask: Do we give guilt its due as a research topic? I am not sure. My impression is that the lack of a stereotypical facial expression has made guilt a less central topic in the history of emotion research than it should have been. But, as this issue of Emotion Researcher testifies, guilt is here to stay. The good news is that I am done with guilt as far as this column is concerned. Now that the screen is full of words, my future guilt has no longer a reason to be. I effectively neutralized it. And that fills me with relief.

Comments are welcome – here, or on our Facebook page. For example, I would be interested to hear whether the concept of Fremdschämen exists in other languages. Please contribute.


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