Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes—accurately or not—that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a universal moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation. It is closely related to the concept of remorse.
Guilt is an important factor in perpetuating obsessive–compulsive disorder symptoms. 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 guilt…as the most powerful of all obstacles to recovery.” For his later explicator, Lacan, guilt was the inevitable companion of the signifying subject who acknowledged normality in the form of the Symbolic order.
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’ expectations….no argument can overcome these guilt feelings, for they have their beginnings in life’s earliest period, and from that they derive their intensity.” 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.” 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.
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 overcompensation…re-enacts being a person without guilt feelings.”
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.
Defenses against feeling guilt can become an overriding aspect of one’s personality. The methods that can be used to avoid guilt are multiple. They include:
- Repression, usually used by the superego and ego against instinctive impulses, but on occasion employed against the superego/conscience itself. 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.
- 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. 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).
- 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.
- 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.
Feelings of guilt can prompt subsequent virtuous behavior. People who feel guilty may be more likely to exercise restraint, avoid self-indulgence, and exhibit less prejudice. Guilt appears to prompt reparatory behaviors to alleviate the negative emotions that it engenders. People appear to engage in targeted and specific reparatory behaviors toward the persons they wronged or offended.
Lack of guilt in psychopaths
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. 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. 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.
Some evolutionary psychologists theorize that guilt and shame helped maintain beneficial relationships, such as reciprocal altruism. 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.
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.