The Functions of Guilt

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entbaumeisterMichael R. Ent, Department of Psychology, Towson University & Roy F. Baumeister, Department of Psychology, Florida State University

May 2016 – Humans rely on social relationships and cultural systems for survival and wellbeing. Harming or neglecting one’s relationship partners can have dire consequences. Guilt is an aversive emotion that discourages behaviors that could threaten one’s ability to get along with others. The experience of guilt can lead people to repair their relationships and learn from their mistakes; the anticipation of guilt can prevent people from damaging their relationships. Therefore, anticipated guilt is particularly functional. Guilt can be elicited by: 1) transgressing against others, 2) failing to self-regulate, or 3) causing resentment among others even when such resentment is not one’s fault (e.g., being resented by friends for receiving unfair rewards). Anticipating any of these can also cause guilt. The motivation to minimize guilty feelings can lead people derogate their victims or deny their culpability. More importantly, it can lead people to make amends with their relationship partners and avoid behaviors that might harm their relationships.

In what follows, we will address three main issues: the nature of guilt, the functions of guilt, and the management of guilty feelings. As we will argue, guilt helps people to maintain and enhance their relationships with others.

What is Guilt?

Broadly speaking, guilt is a relationship-protecting emotion, which comes about when behaviors that threaten a relationship are either performed or contemplated. Because guilt results from unfavorable assessments of one’s behavior or anticipated behavior, it is considered a self-conscious emotion (e.g., Tangney, 1990). Guilt involves evaluating specific behaviors, whereas shame involves evaluating oneself as a person. People might feel shame associated with evaluating specific behaviors if those behaviors lead to a generalized negative self-evaluation. However, people can feel guilty about some of their behaviors without adopting a generalized negative self-evaluation. Feeling bad about specific behaviors can be helpful feedback leading to behavior change; feeling bad about oneself as a whole may be overwhelming and unhelpful as feedback. As a result of this difference in the scope of one’s self-evaluation, shame is not associated with the beneficial aspects of guilt (Leith & Baumeister, 1998, Tangney et al., 1996).

Guilt Elicitors

The primary elicitors of guilt are: 1) transgression against others, 2) self-regulatory failure, and 3) causing resentment in others even when such resentment is not one’s fault (i.e., no-fault relationship threats). Transgression against others and self-regulatory failure overlap quite a bit in eliciting guilt. Common sources of guilt are harming others, treating others unfairly, and neglecting one’s relationship partners (Baumeister et al., 1994). Thus, a common reason for feeling guilty is failing to override one’s selfish impulses for the sake of one’s relationships (i.e., failing to self-regulate for the sake other others).

People may sometimes feel guilt associated with failing to self-regulate even if it doesn’t directly harm one’s relationships (e.g., Tangney, 1992). For example, people may feel guilty after eating a tub of ice cream or spending too much money on superfluous goods. Nevertheless, even those types of self-regulation failure could have social repercussions. If failing to self-regulate could diminish one’s ability to gain social status, attract mates, or get along with others, it is likely to cause guilt.

Finally, people may also feel guilt when contemplating threats to one’s relationships even when such threats are not one’s fault. For example, people may feel guilt associated with turning down a long-time friend’s romantic advances. Unrequited love can cause problems within a friendship. Nevertheless, it is often no one’s fault.

What Are the Functions of Guilt?

Because guilt is aversive, people are motivated to avoid any behaviors that elicit guilt. The anticipation of guilt is beneficial in that it can discourage transgression against others, self-regulatory failure, and indifference to relationship threats. The experience of guilt can encourage people to learn from their mistakes and make amends. Thus, both the anticipation of guilt and the experience of guilt can help to foster harmonious interpersonal relationships.

Experiencing and Anticipating Guilt

Experiencing guilt after behaviors that damage one’s relationships can encourage people to repair their relationships and avoid such behaviors in the future. Anticipating guilt associated with one’s future behavior can prevent people from engaging in relationship-damaging behaviors. For example, people might feel guilty after flirting with a stranger in front of their romantic partner. Those guilty feelings could encourage the flirtatious partner to apologize and make amends. If the flirtatious partner were tempted to flirt in the future, the prior experience of guilt resulting from flirtation could dissuade such relationship-threatening behavior. Thus, the anticipation of guilt is especially beneficial because it can prevent people from transgressing in the first place.

How does emotion affect behavior? Many traditional theories have assumed that the primary function of emotion is to drive behavior. In some cases, emotion does seem to directly cause behavior (e.g., fear causes fleeing, which is adaptive). But a recent review concluded that emotion seems to function primarily as a feedback mechanism that prompts people to reflect on their actions and outcomes, leading to change in subsequent behavior (Baumeister, Vohs, DeWall, & Zhang, 2007). Guilt provides a vivid illustration of emotion functioning as a feedback system. The experience of guilt following a behavior helps to shape rules that guide future behavior (e.g., “if I do X, then I will feel guilty”).

When contemplating future behaviors that caused guilt in the past, people may experience automatic affective responses that discourage such behavior (see also, Damasio, 1994). Chang, Smith, Dufwenberg, and Sanfey (2011) found that neural systems associated with the anticipation of guilt were active when participants considered whether to act fairly or selfishly in an economic exchange game. To be sure, the experience of guilt is important in that it can directly motivate people to make amends and can serve as a reference for shaping future behavior. Anticipated guilt is crucial for preventing undesirable behavior.

Guilt and Transgressions Against Others

When people transgress against others, they often experience guilty feelings, which encourage them to learn from their mistakes and make amends. When people contemplate future transgressions, they often anticipate guilt, which discourages them from harming others or damaging their relationships. As a result, guilt can stem aggression (Tangney, Wagner, Hill-Barlow, Marschall, & Gramzow, 1996), promote cooperation (de Hooge, Zeelenberg, & Breugelmans, 2007), and generally help people to protect and enhance their interpersonal relationships (for review, see Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994).  These facts support the view that one of the primary reasons that guilt may have evolved is to protect people’s relationships (Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994; Trivers, 1985).

Guilt is a fairly common experience. Results from an experience sampling study suggest that people feel guilt approximately 13% of their waking lives, though the guilt reported was typically mild (Baumeister, Reis, & Delespaul, 1995). The researchers examined what types of activities and thoughts were associated with guilty feelings and found that participants were most likely to feel guilt when thinking about the self in relation to other people. Such thoughts were accompanied by reports of some guilty feelings close to 40% of the time. This finding underscores the interpersonal nature of guilt. Perhaps surprisingly, participants were no more likely to report feeling guilty when engaged in social interaction than when they were alone. Guilt doesn’t seem to wield its influence primarily during the course of interpersonal interaction. Instead, it arises when people reflect on their interactions with others. By doing so, guilt may help people to realize how their past or future behavior may threaten their relationships.

People are especially likely to experience guilt within the context of close relationships. Baumeister, Stillwell, and Heatherton (1995) randomly assigned some participants write autobiographical narratives about an incident in which they made someone feel guilty and some to write about an incident in which someone made them feel guilty. Out of over 100 responses, only one described guilt toward a stranger, while 93% indicated that they had a close relationship with the person in their guilt narrative. Thus, guilt responses are especially attuned to threats to close relationships.

Guilt can benefit relationships by encouraging people to alter their behavior in a pro-relationship fashion. For example, 40% of participants in one study who wrote about a time in which they felt guilty indicated that they learned a lesson from the guilt-inducing incident, and over 20% indicated that they changed their subsequent behavior as a result (Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1995). Guilt is also associated with taking the perspective of one’s relationship partners, which can benefit relationships. Leith and Baumeister (1998) instructed participants to describe an interpersonal conflict from their own perspective and then from the perspective of the other person. Participants high in guilt proneness were especially likely to change perspectives between their first and second rendition.

In addition, the first story (from the participant’s perspective) was coded for whether the participant mentioned considerations of the other person’s perspective even before being prompted to do so by the experimenter. High guilt proneness was associated with spontaneous perspective taking. Thus, guilt proneness is tied to both an ability to engage in perspective taking when prompted as well as a proclivity to do so of one’s own accord. Guilt can encourage people to learn from their mistakes, alter relationship-damaging behavior, and consider their relationship partners’ perspectives.

People can influence others by inducing guilt. In many circumstances, people spontaneously feel guilt as a result of contemplating their transgressions. However, people are not always aware that they have caused suffering until their victims protest. Victims can induce guilt to elicit apologies, recompense, and behavior change from perpetrators. Guilt may be used as an influence technique especially among people who lack formal authority or social power.

People typically use guilt induction as a means to influence their close relationship partners, rather than acquaintances or strangers. The most common reason that people induce guilt in others is the perception that their close relationship partners fail to pay them adequate attention or spend enough time with them (Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1995). Given that guilt can motivate people to change their behavior, it is not surprising that people would use guilt to influence others. Nevertheless, using guilt as a means of influence has drawbacks.

Baumeister, Stillwell, and Heatherton (1995) found that over a third of participants who wrote about a time in which someone made them feel guilty indicated some level of resentment about being made to feel guilty — but only 2% of participants who wrote about a time in which they induced guilt in another person indicated that the target seemed resentful. Thus, people who use guilt to influence others may unknowingly cause others to resent them. Another side effect of using guilt as an influence technique is that people sometimes feel guilty about making someone else feel guilty. Although inducing guilt can be used to influence others, it is costly to both the target and the person inducing the guilt.

Guilt and Self-Regulation

Self-regulation involves altering one’s responses to bring them up to standards. People often engage in self-regulation to thwart selfish impulses and thereby get along with others. Failure to thwart selfish impulses for the sake of one’s relationships can lead to guilt. People may also feel guilt associated with self-control failure that does not directly involve other people, but such guilt tends to be less reliable and often pertains to relationships anyway. Tangney (1992) collected participants’ accounts of guilt-inducing episodes and found that the accounts were heavily interpersonal in nature. The lone exception was guilt resulting from failures in dieting. Whether dieting is solitary or interpersonally motivated is debatable: one of the most common reasons that people diet is to appear attractive to others (O’Brien et al., 2007).

Guilt can aid self-regulation. Anticipating guilt associated with self-regulatory failure can motivate people to self-regulate and thereby avoid guilty feelings. Self-regulation may even promote guilt. To experience or anticipate guilt, people often need to examine their behavior, compare it to standards, and consider how they could have behaved differently. Engaging in these types of high-order cognitive processes requires self-regulation (Xu, Bègue, Sauve, & Bushman, 2014).

Engaging in self-regulation temporarily diminishes one’s capacity to self-regulate (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998). The state of temporarily lacking self-regulatory capacity due to prior exertion is known as ego depletion. Ent and Baumeister (2016) found that ego depletion attenuated anticipated guilt. Ego-depleted participants said they would feel less guilty if they failed to reach their personal goals in the coming weeks, as compared to non-depleted ones. Follow-up measures (three weeks later) indicated that actual guilt over failing to reach goals was independent of whether they had been depleted. Notably, all participants overestimated how guilty they would feel if they failed to reach their goals — so ego depletion simply reduced the overestimation. The implication is that overestimating future guilt motivates people to self-regulate so as to reach them. When they are depleted (and lack the wherewithal to self-regulate), they discount guilt over future failures.

Guilt and No-Fault Relationship Threats

People may feel guilty even in the absence of actual or anticipated transgression, self-regulatory failure, or direct relationship-threatening behavior. For example, people may feel guilty for surviving events that killed others or for being able to keep their jobs despite coworkers being fired (i.e., survivor guilt; Lifton, 1967; Brockner, Davy, & Carter, 1985). People may also feel guilty for receiving unfair rewards (Austin, McGinn, & Susmilch, 1980). In addition, people who reject would-be lovers tend to feel guilty for doing so (Baumeister, Stillwell, & Wotman, 1993).

No-fault types of guilt can also be explained in terms of the broad relationship-protecting function of guilt. The key point here is that rejecting others, keeping one’s job when coworkers are fired, and receiving unfair rewards could all cause resentment from one’s relationship partners, and so they could become indirect threats to the relationship. Because a primary function of guilt is to protect one’s relationships, such events can cause guilt despite one’s lack of culpability. Such guilt may lead people to attend to and mitigate factors that may threaten their relationships. For example, anticipated guilt people might motivate people to refuse unfair rewards for the sake of their relationships. Similarly, experiencing guilt for keeping one’s job despite coworkers being fired might motivate people to try to invest in or repair their relationships with former coworkers. Thus, even guilt resulting from no-fault relationship threats can protect one’s relationships.

Managing Guilt

All emotionally healthy people have to cope with guilty feelings because of their transgressions, their failures at self-regulation, or because of other threats to their relationships. People may attempt to reduce their guilty feeling following a transgression by apologizing to and compensating their victims. But there is a less savory path to the regulation of guilt, and that is to deny culpability or blame the victim. These types of guilt-reduction strategies might mitigate the guilt felt by perpetrators by making them lack a sense of responsibility for any damage to their relationships or by making them devalue the relationships that they may have damaged. Baumeister, Stillwell, and Wotman (1990) had participants write two autobiographical narratives: one from the perspective of a victim and one from the perspective of a perpetrator. Unlike victim narratives, perpetrator narratives tended to regard the transgression as an isolated incident that was understandable and at least partially due to extenuating circumstances. Casting the transgression in that light could help perpetrators to reduce their guilty feelings.

An interesting test case for how people deal with guilt is constituted by situations in which all options lead to guilty feelings. For example, soldiers may be forced to choose between harming others and disobeying authority. This type of tradeoff was the subject of Milgram’s (1963) famous obedience studies. People feel guilty over harming others. People may also feel guilt associated with disobeying authority – insofar as disobedience can undermine social institutions, offend authority figures, and violate codes of conduct (e.g., social norms or laws). Individual differences in guilt proneness may affect how people respond to such tradeoffs. Generally speaking, people high in guilt proneness experience guilt more often and more intensely than people low in guilt. Therefore, when they are faced with moral tradeoffs, they may be especially likely to choose the least guilt-inducing option.

Ent and Baumeister (2015) found that people high in guilt proneness were especially likely to disobey authority to prevent another person from having to suffer through an unpleasant task. Participants were in charge of randomly assigning a confederate to engage in a pleasant task (watching videos on the internet) vs. an unpleasant task (proofreading a passage from a statistics book for grammatical errors). The participants were instructed to roll a die – while the experimenter was absent – to decide which task to assign. Then, participants reported to the experimenter which task should be assigned to confederate based on the roll of the die. Unlike participants low in guilt proneness, those high in guilt proneness assigned the pleasant task at a rate greater than chance. This suggests that at least some of the highly guilt-prone participants lied to the experimenter to save the confederate from an unpleasant task. Thus, guilt proneness makes people willing to perform unethical behaviors (lying to authority) in service of a higher moral good (avoiding harm). Choosing the least guilt-inducing option when faced with moral tradeoffs can be a way for people to manage (i.e., minimize) their guilt.

To sum up, people can use lots of strategies to cope with guilty feelings. These strategies may range from apologizing and offering recompense to denying one’s culpability and blaming one’s victims. In facing moral tradeoffs, people may make decisions based on how much guilt each option would cause and favor the least guilt-inducing option.

Conclusion

Guilt protects relationships by discouraging relationship-damaging behavior and encouraging people to repair their damaged relationships after they have transgressed. People sometimes deliberately induce guilt in others as a means of influence, yet such guilt induction can be costly to one’s relationships. The wish to avoid guilt also motivates people to self-regulate, which has positive effects for self and society.

Because guilt is an aversive state, people adopt many strategies to minimize guilt (e.g., making amends, denying culpability, etc.). Although guilt may have a bad reputation among many in the general public, it is an indispensible aspect of human social life — and often a positive force for good behavior and good relationships.

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