Psychological & Behavioral Features of Guilt

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People can be plagued by guilt, but modern emotion theorists say that guilt, while generally experienced as unpleasant, can be a functional emotion.

Guilt is “the negative emotion felt when someone fails or does something morally wrong but focuses on how to avoid repeating the transgression” (Kalat, Shiota, 2007, p. 239).

Guilt tends to occur in two types of circumstances:

  1. An individual feels that she has done something morally wrong or
  2. an individual has disappointed herself or others by failing to live up to standards or expectations (Tangney, Miller, Flicker, & Barlow, 1996).

Guilt may be associated with a particular bodily and facial expression that involves a lowering of the eyes, no smile or a very slight frown, and a slumping posture (although some have disputed this third aspect, e.g., Lewis, 2008, suggesting that the posture of the guilty person is one of projected forward movement).

Much of the preceding description applies also to shameOpens in new window, and many emotion researchers make note of the commonalities or overlap between guilt and shame. Both guilt and shame are negative emotionsOpens in new window, involving an evaluation of the self. In both cases, the individual feels that she had committed a moral transgression or has been a disappointment to herself or others.

What distinguishes guilt from shame is the way that the individual understands the negative act or event in relation to the self.

  • In shameOpens in new window, the individual thinks that the negative event means that she is a bad person.
  • In guilt, the person believes that the negative event meant her behavior was bad, but not that her whole self is bad.

Therefore the attribution of the event is different in the cases of shame and guilt. Both attributions involve the self, but in shame, the individual is making a global attribution (whole self), whereas in guilt, she is making a specific attribution (a behavior; Lewis, 1992).

As Lewis (2008) states, the fact that this attribution is specific rather than focusing on the whole self makes guilt a more functional and less intense emotion than shame. In guilt, the individual thinks of ways to make amends for the wrong act.

Although guilt is painful, it contains hopeOpens in new window; something can be done to make the wrong right or to prevent the same action from occurring in the future. Conversely, shameOpens in new window is associated with hopelessnessOpens in new window and leads to confusion and behavioral paralysis.

In Sigmund Freud’s theory of personalityOpens in new window, guilt plays a central role (e.g., Freud, 1905/1953). For Freud, guilt is derived from the superego.

The superego is a component of the personality that develops in childhood, immediately following the Oedipal (occurs for boys) or Electra (occurs for girls) complex, in which the child has developed an attachment and attraction to the (usually opposite-sexed) parent.

This complex is emotionally complicated and intense for the child; among other emotions, the child desires exclusive possession of the loved parent and feels jealousyOpens in new window toward the other parent. When the child realizes that she will not have her loved parent in the way that she wants, the complex comes to an end.

As the complex resolves, the child internalizes the morality of (usually) her same-sexed parent, thinking that in becoming like the person that her opposite-sexed parent loves, she is making herself attractive to people who are similar to her opposite-sexed parent. This is when the conscience (superego) is born. Therefore, in Freud’s theory, the consciences of most people bear a similarity to the consciences of their same-sexed parents.

In Freud’s theory of guilt, the self-attribution that is made about the negative event or circumstance is specific (focusing on the individual’s behavior), not global (focusing on the whole self). Therefore, as in modern conceptions of guilt, the afflicted individual may be able to do something about the guilt.

Freud suggested a variety of ways that the individual could attempt to atone for the guilt. Some examples include making amends with the harmed person, actively punishing oneself in a variety of ways, and self-deprivation.

See also:
  1. Lewis, M. (1992). Shame: The exposed self. New York: Free Press.
  2. Lewis, M. (2008). Self-conscious emotions: Embarrassment, pride, shame, and guilt. In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, & L.F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 742 – 756). New York: Guilford.
  3. Tangney, J.P., Miller, R.S., Flicker, L., & Barlow, D. H. (1996). Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1256 – 1269.
  4. Freud, S. (1953). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 7, pp. 123 – 213). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1905).