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Guilt (emotion)

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Title: Guilt (emotion)  
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Guilt (emotion)

A child shows guilt upon being caught stealing.

Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes—accurately or not—that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a moral standard, and bears significant responsibility for that violation.[1] It is closely related to the concept of remorse.


  • Psychology 1
    • Defences 1.1
    • Lack of guilt in people with psychopathy 1.2
    • Causes (etiology) 1.3
      • Evolutionary theories 1.3.1
      • Social psychology theories 1.3.2
      • Other theories 1.3.3
  • Collective guilt 2
  • Cultural views 3
    • Etymology 3.1
    • In literature 3.2
    • In the Bible 3.3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


Guilt is an important factor in perpetuating obsessive–compulsive disorder symptoms.[2] Guilt and its associated causes, merits, and demerits are common themes in psychology and psychiatry. Both in specialized and in ordinary language, guilt is an affective state in which one experiences conflict at having done something that one believes one should not have done (or conversely, having not done something one believes one should have done). It gives rise to a feeling which does not go away easily, driven by 'conscience'. Sigmund Freud described this as the result of a struggle between the ego and the superego – parental imprinting. Freud rejected the role of God as punisher in times of illness or rewarder in time of wellness. While removing one source of guilt from patients, he described another. This was the unconscious force within the individual that contributed to illness, Freud in fact coming to consider "the obstacle of an unconscious sense of the most powerful of all obstacles to recovery."[3] For his later explicator, Lacan, guilt was the inevitable companion of the signifying subject who acknowledged normality in the form of the Symbolic order.[4]

Alice Miller claims that "many people suffer all their lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt, the sense of not having lived up to their parents' argument can overcome these guilt feelings, for they have their beginnings in life's earliest period, and from that they derive their intensity."[5] This may be linked to what Les Parrott has called "the disease of false guilt....At the root of false guilt is the idea that what you feel must be true."[6] If you feel guilty, you must be guilty!

The philosopher Martin Buber underlined the difference between the Freudian notion of guilt, based on internal conflicts, and existential guilt, based on actual harm done to others.[7]

Guilt is often associated with anxiety. In mania, according to Otto Fenichel, the patient succeeds in applying to guilt "the defense mechanism of denial by being a person without guilt feelings."[8]

In psychological research, guilt can be measured by using questionnaires, such as the Differential Emotions Scale (Izard's DES), or the Dutch Guilt Measurement Instrument.


Defences against feeling guilt can become an overriding aspect of one's personality.[9] The methods that can be used to avoid guilt are multiple. They include:

  1. Repression, usually used by the superego and ego against instinctive impulses, but on occasion employed against the superego/conscience itself.[10] If the defence fails, then (in a return of the repressed) one may begin to feel guilty years later for actions lightly committed at the time.[11]
  2. Projection is another defensive tool with wide applications. It may take the form of blaming the victim: The victim of someone else's accident or bad luck may be offered criticism, the theory being that the victim may be at fault for having attracted the other person's hostility.[12] Alternatively, not the guilt, but the condemning agency itself, may be projected onto other people, in the hope that they will look upon one's deeds more favorably than one's own conscience (a process that verges on ideas of reference).[13]
  3. Sharing a feeling of guilt, and thereby being less alone with it, is a motive force in both art and joke-telling; while it is also possible to "borrow" a sense of guilt from someone who is seen as in the wrong, and thereby assuage one's own.[14]
  4. Self-harm may be used as an alternative to compensating the object of one's transgression – perhaps in the form of not allowing oneself to enjoy opportunities open to one, or benefits due, as a result of uncompensated guilt feelings. [15]

Lack of guilt in people with psychopathy

Individuals high in psychopathy lack any true sense of guilt or remorse for harm they may have caused others. Instead, they rationalize their behavior, blame someone else, or deny it outright.[16] A person with psychopathy has a tendency to be harmful to his or herself and to others. They have little ability to plan ahead for the future. An individual with psychopathy will never find themselves at fault because, they will do whatever it takes to benefit themselves without reservation. A person that does not feel guilt or remorse would have no reason to find themselves at fault for something that they did with the intention of hurting another person. To a person high in psychopathy, their actions can always be rationalized to be the fault of another person.[17] This is seen by psychologists as part of a lack of moral reasoning (in comparison with the majority of humans), an inability to evaluate situations in a moral framework, and an inability to develop emotional bonds with other people due to a lack of empathy.

Causes (etiology)

Evolutionary theories

Some evolutionary psychologists theorize that guilt and shame helped maintain beneficial relationships, such as reciprocal altruism.[18] If a person feels guilty when he harms another, or even fails to reciprocate kindness, he is more likely not to harm others or become too selfish. In this way, he reduces the chances of retaliation by members of his tribe, and thereby increases his survival prospects, and those of the tribe or group. As with any other emotion, guilt can be manipulated to control or influence others. As a highly social animal living in large groups that are relatively stable, we need ways to deal with conflicts and events in which we inadvertently or purposefully harm others. If someone causes harm to another, and then feels guilt and demonstrates regret and sorrow, the person harmed is likely to forgive. Thus, guilt makes it possible to forgive, and helps hold the social group together.

Social psychology theories

When we see another person suffering, it can also cause us pain. This constitutes our powerful system of empathy, which leads to our thinking that we should do something to relieve the suffering of others. If we cannot help another, or fail in our efforts, we experience feelings of guilt. From the perspective of group selection, groups that are made up of a high percentage of co-operators outdo groups with a low percentage of co-operators in between-group competition. People who are more prone to high levels of empathy-based guilt may be likely to suffer from anxiety and depression; however, they are also more likely to cooperate and behave altruistically. This suggests that guilt-proneness may not always be beneficial at the level of the individual, or within-group competition, but highly beneficial in between-group competition.

Other theories

Another common notion is that guilt is assigned by social processes, such as a jury trial (i. e., that it is a strictly legal concept). Thus, the ruling of a jury that O. J. Simpson or Julius Rosenberg was "guilty" or "not innocent" is taken as an actual judgment by the whole society that they must act as if they were so. By corollary, the ruling that such a person is "not guilty" may not be so taken, due to the asymmetry in the assumption that one is assumed innocent until proven guilty, and prefers to take the risk of freeing a guilty party over convicting innocents. Still others—often, but not always, theists of one type or another—believe that the origin of guilt comes from violating universal principles of right and wrong. In most instances, people who believe this also acknowledge that even though there is proper guilt from doing 'wrong' instead of doing 'right', people endure all sorts of guilty feelings which do not stem from violating universal moral principles.

Collective guilt

Collective guilt (or group guilt) is the unpleasant and often emotional reaction that results among a group of individuals when it is perceived that the group illegitimately harmed members of another group. It is often the result of “sharing a social identity with others whose actions represent a threat to the positivity of that identity.”[19] Different intergroup inequalities can result in collective guilt, such as receiving unearned benefits and privileges or inflicting more extreme forms of harm on an out-group (including genocide). Individuals are generally motivated to avoid collective guilt in order to maintain a positive social identity. There are many ways of decreasing collective guilt, such as denying harm or justifying actions. Collective guilt can also lead to positive outcomes, such as promoting intergroup reconciliation and reducing negative attitudes towards the out-group.

There are several components to collective guilt: salient group identity, belief that the in-group was the cause of the actions, belief in collective responsibility, and perception of unjust in-group actions.

In order for an individual to experience collective guilt, he must identify himself as a part of the in-group. “This produces a perceptual shift from thinking of oneself in terms of ‘I’ and ‘me’ to ‘us’ or ‘we’.”[19] Only when an individual is salient with the in-group can he or she perceive responsibility for the harmful actions of the group, past and present.

In addition to in-group salience, an individual will only feel collective guilt if he or she views the in-group as responsible for the harmful actions done to the out-group. For instance, in two studies by the American Mosaic Project, racial inequality in the United States was framed as either “Black Disadvantage” or “White Privilege”. When the term “black disadvantage” was used to describe racial inequality, white participants felt less collectively responsible for the harm done to the out-group, which lessened collective guilt. In comparison, when “white privilege” was used, white participants felt more collectively responsible for the harm done, which increased collective guilt.

Additionally, if a person believes that only individuals are responsible for their own actions, and not a collective group, then they can deny the existence of collective responsibility. Only if a person believes individual holds some responsibility for the actions of the group will they feel collective guilt.

Lastly, an individual has to believe the actions caused by the in-group were unjustifiable, indefensible, and unforgivable. If an individual can justify the actions of the in-group, this will lessen collective guilt. Collective guilt is not only a result of feeling empathy for the out-group. It can also be caused by self-conscious emotion that stems from the questioning of the morality of the in-group if the in-group is perceived to have performed reprehensible actions.

There are various methods of reducing collective guilt, including denying the in-group’s harmful actions, denying responsibility for the actions, claiming actions by the in-group were just, focusing on positive aspects caused by the harmful action, and pointing out positive things in other areas to counterbalance the harm.

By denying the in-group’s harmful actions or downplaying the severity of the harm, the effect of collective guilt is lessened. If the individual or group can neglect to observe the harm caused by their actions, either consciously or unconsciously, then the individual will not feel collective guilt.

If members of a group not feel that individuals in general, or themselves specifically, are responsible the actions of an in-group, they then they will feel less collective guilt.

If an individual can rationalize the actions of the in-group or believes that there were just reasons for the harm inflicted, collective guilt is likely to be reduced. For instance, out-group dehumanization is one effective means towards justifying the in-group’s actions.

Another way individuals or groups may attempt to reduce collective guilt is by focusing on the positive aspects of the in-group’s actions rather than the harmful effects. For instance, choosing to focus on the benefits of high levels of production and consumption, rather than seeing the destruction.

Cultural views

Traditional Japanese society, Korean society and Chinese culture[20] are sometimes said to be "shame-based" rather than "guilt-based", in that the social consequences of "getting caught" are seen as more important than the individual feelings or experiences of the agent (see the work of Ruth Benedict). The same has been said of Ancient Greek society, a culture where, in Bruno Snell's words, if "honour is destroyed the moral existence of the loser collapses."[21]

This may lead to more of a focus on etiquette than on ethics as understood in Western civilization, leading some in Western civilizations to question why the word ethos was adapted from Ancient Greek with such vast differences in cultural norms. Christianity and Islam inherit most notions of guilt from Judaism, Persian, and Roman ideas, mostly as interpreted through Augustine, who adapted Plato's ideas to Christianity. The Latin word for guilt is culpa, a word sometimes seen in law literature, for instance in mea culpa meaning "my fault (guilt)".


Guilt, from O.E. gylt "crime, sin, fault, fine, debt", derived from O.E. gieldan "to pay for, debt". The mistaken use for "sense of guilt" is first recorded in 1690. "Guilt by association" is first recorded in 1941. "Guilty" is from O.E. gyltig, from gylt.

In literature

Guilt is a main theme in John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, William Shakespeare's play Macbeth, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat", and many other works of literature. In Sartre's The Flies, the Furies (in the form of flies) represent the morbid, strangling forces of neurotic guilt which bind us to authoritarian and totalitarian power.[22]

Guilt is a major theme in many works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and is an almost universal concern of novelists who explore inner life and secrets.

In the Bible

Guilt in the Christian Jesus Christ (Heb 10:1–4; 9–12). The whole world is guilty before God for abandoning him and his ways (Rom 3:9). In Jesus Christ, God took upon himself the sins of the world and died on the cross to pay our debt (Rom 6:23). Those who repent and accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for their sins, will be redeemed by God and thus not guilty before him. They will be granted eternal life which will take effect when Jesus comes the second time (1 Thess 4:13–18). In contrast to surrounding nations which addressed their guilt with human sacrifice, the Israeli authors of the Bible called that an abomination (1 Kings 11:7, Jer 32:35). The Bible agrees with pagan cultures that guilt creates a cost that someone must pay (Heb 9:22). (This assumption was expressed in the previous section, "Defences": "Guilty people punish themselves if they have no opportunity to compensate the transgression that caused them to feel guilty. It was found that self-punishment did not occur if people had an opportunity to compensate the victim of their transgression.") But unlike pagan deities who demanded it be paid by humans, God, according to the Bible, loved us enough to pay it Himself, as a good father would, while calling us His "children" and calling Himself our "father" (Mat 5:45).

See also


  1. ^ "Guilt". Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2nd ed. Ed. Bonnie R. Strickland. Gale Group, Inc., 2001. 2006. 31 December 2007
  2. ^ Leslie J. Shapiro, LICSW. "Pathological guilt: A persistent yet overlooked treatment factor in obsessive-compulsive disorder —". Retrieved 27 November 2012. 
  3. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) pp. 390–1
  4. ^ Catherine Belsey, Shakespeare in Theory and Practice (2008) p. 25
  5. ^ Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child (1995) pp. 99–100
  6. ^ Parrott, pp. 158–9
  7. ^ Buber, M. (May 1957). "Guilt and guilt feelings". Psychiatry 20 (2): 114–29.  
  8. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) pp. 409–10
  9. ^ Otto Fenichel The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 496
  10. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11)p. 393
  11. ^ Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (Penguin 1976) p. 191
  12. ^ The Pursuit of Health, June Bingham & Norman Tamarkin, M.D., Walker Press
  13. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 165 and p. 293
  14. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 165-6 and p. 496
  15. ^ Nelissen, R. M. A., & Zeelenberg, M. (2009). "When guilt evokes self-punishment: Evidence for the existence of a dobby effect". Emotion 9 (1): 118–122. doi:10.1037/a0014540
  16. ^ Birket-Smith, Morten; Millon, Theodore; Simonsen, Erik; Davis, Roger E. (2002). "11. Psychopathy and the Five-Factor Model of Personality, Widiger and Lynam". Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behavior. New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 173–7.  
  17. ^ Kosson, D. S.; C. S., Forth, A. E., Salekin, R. T., Hare, R. D., Krischer, M. K., & Sevecke, K. (2013). "Factor structure of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL:YV) in adolescent females". Psychological Assessment.  
  18. ^ Pallanti, S., Quercioli, L. (August 2000). "Shame and psychopathology". CNS Spectr 5 (8): 28–43.  
  19. ^ a b Branscombe, Nyla, R.; Bertjan Doosje (2004). Collective Guilt: International Perspectives. Cambridge University Press.  
  20. ^ Bill Brugger, China, Liberation and Transformation (1981) pp. 18–19
  21. ^ Quoted in M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (1967) p. 136
  22. ^ Robert Fagles trans., The Oresteia (Penguin 1981) p. 92
  23. ^ Owen, J. (1850). "Chapter 8". The Doctrine of Justification by Faith. London: Johnstone and Hunter. p. 197. 

Further reading

  • Adam Phillips, 'Guilt', in On Flirtation (1994) pp. 138–147
  • Nina Coltart, 'Sin and the Super-ego', in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1992)

External links

  • Tangney, J. P., Miller, R. S., Flicker, L., Barlow, D. H. (June 1996). "Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions?". J Pers Soc Psychol 70 (6): 1256–69.  
  • Guilt, unconscious sense of
  • Michael Eigen, 'Guilt in an Age of Psychopathy'
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