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— Wikipedian  —
Name Hannah C Jones
Born 1988
Current location Southampton, UK
Education and employment
Occupation Psychology Undergraduate Student '10
College Southampton University

I am Hannah Jones and this is my personal Self and Identity Wiki Page. I am currently studying psychology at the University of Southampton. As part of a Self and Identity unit, a Self and Identity Task Force has been created by lecturer Aiden P. Gregg and our task is to create and edit articles under the general rubric of the Psychology WikiProject. My task is to improve, the already extensive article on Guilt.

After perusing the original article and looking into my own research, it is clear that there is little evidence on the page from other psychologists presenting their views. In sight of this, I am going to produce views and evidence from other psychologists to analyse the differences between shame and guilt. On this page I will post the original article and highlight the changes I will make. If these changes are approved then it is possible to post the new article on the original page.


Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes—accurately or not—that they have violated a moral standard, and is responsible for that violation.[1] It is closely related to the concept of remorse.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies, by John Singer Sargent. 1921. The erinyes represent the guilt for murdering his mother

Psychology of guilt[edit]

In psychology, as well as 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. 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.[2] Guilt and its causes, merits, and demerits are common themes in psychology and psychiatry. It is often associated with anxiety, and sometimes depression.

Lack of guilt of psychopaths[edit]

Psychopaths typically lack any sense of guilt or remorse for harm they may have caused to others. Instead, they rationalize their behavior, blame someone else, or deny it outright.[3] 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.[4]

Causes (etiology)[edit]

Evolutionary causes[edit]

Some evolutionary psychologists theorize that guilt and shame helped maintain beneficial relationships, such as reciprocal altruism.[5] 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.

Neurological causes[edit]

Guilt is founded on our empathy system and mirror neurons. When we see another carrying out an action, we carry out the action ourselves in neuronal activity, though not in overt action. The neurons that mirror others are called mirror neurons. When we see another person suffering, we can feel their suffering as if it is our own. 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 percent of co-operators outdo groups with a low percent 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. [citation needed]

Other causes[edit]

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 guilty" 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.

According to the theory of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, guilt occurs heavily in INF types, who normally hold themselves to very high moral standards. (source:

Philosophy of guilt[edit]

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.[6]

Collective guilt[edit]

Collective guilt, like guilt, is the unpleasant 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”.[7] Different intergroup inequalities can result in collective guilt, such as receiving unearned benefits and privileges or inflicting more extreme forms of harm on an outgroup (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 outgroup.

There are several causes of collective guilt, salient group identity, collective responsibility, and perception of unjust ingroup actions. In order for an individual to experience collective guilt, he must identify himself as a part of the ingroup. “This produces a perceptual shift from thinking of oneself in terms of ‘I’ and ‘me’ to ‘us’ or ‘we’.”[7] Only when an individual is salient with the ingroup can they perceive responsibility for the harmful actions of the group, past and present. In addition to ingroup salience, an individual will only feel collective guilt if they view the ingroup as responsible for the harmful actions done to the outgroup. “For instance, in two studies, racial inequality in the US 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 outgroup, 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.

Lastly, an individual has to believe the actions caused by the ingroup were unjustifiable, indefensible and unforgivable. If an individual can justify the actions of the ingroup this will lessen collective guilt. Only when an individual views the ingroup actions as reprehensible will that individual feel collective guilt. Collective guilt is not only a result of feeling empathy for the outgroup. It can also be caused by self-conscious emotion that stems from the questioning of the morality of the ingroup.

There are various methods of reducing collective guilt. Some of these methods are denying ingroup’s harmful actions, denying responsibility, claiming actions by ingroup were just, and focusing on positive aspects caused by the harmful action. First, by denying the ingroup’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 a person does not feel that the ingroup is responsible for the harm caused by actions, collective guilt will be lessened. Additionally, if a person believes that only individuals are responsible for their own actions, and not a collective group, than they can deny the existence of collective responsibility, thereby reducing feelings of collective guilt. An individual can rationalize the actions of the ingroup. If the individual believes that there were just reasons for the harm inflicted, collective guilt is likely to be reduced. For instance, outgroup dehumanization is one effective means towards justifying the ingroup’s actions. By focusing on the positive aspects of the ingroup’s actions rather than the harmful effects, collective guilt can be reduced. For instance, an individual or group may choose to focus on the benefits of high levels of production and consumption, and not on its harmful effects on the environment.

Guilt vs. Shame[edit]

It is a common misconception that Shame and Guilt are similar emotions, but there is in fact a distinct difference between the two. The Oxford English Dictionary describes guilt as ‘the fact of having committed an offence or crime’ and shame as ‘a feeling of humiliation or distress caused by awareness of wrong or foolish behaviour.’

Research argues that the differences between shame and guilt fall into three categories: 1, a distinction based on types of eliciting events, 2, a distinction based on the public versus private nature of the transgression, and 3, a distinction based on the degree to which the person construes the emotion-eliciting event as a failure of self or behaviour. [8]

There is a wide range of opinions from researchers regarding the distinction between guilt and shame being based on events. Events such as lying, cheating and stealing elicit shame according to some researchers and guilt according to others. It has also been claimed that ‘shame is evoked by a broader range of situations including both moral and nonmoral failure and transgressions, whereas guilt is more specifically linked to transgressions in the moral realm.’ [9] [10] [11] Whilst looking at this issue in more diverse perspective it has been concluded that ‘shame and guilt are emotions each primarily evoked by moral lapses.’ [12]

When evaluation research behind shame and guilt being public or private emotion is has been concluded that shame is viewed as more public. This is due to the factor that this emotion comes from public exposure, where as guilt is viewed as more private. Guilt as an emotion is usually due to self views and conscience. Nevertheless, research has been concluded that counteracts this, it has failed to support this idea ‘in terms of the actual structure of the emotion-eliciting situation’ [13]. A systematic analysis took place that specialised on the social context of personal shame and guilt eliciting events. It was demonstrated that guilt is just as likely to take place in the presence of others as shame. Experiences of solitary shame and guilt were equally expected, and the ability of others to recognise behaviours did not vary. This contradicts the earlier views of the public vs. private debate. In addition to this, further research found that shame was in fact more common when related with personal events, which are more private than relational and familial events. [14]

In relation to point three, Helen Block Lewis [15] suggested that shame involves a negative emotion of the global self, where as guilt involves a negative evaluation of specific behaviour. Lewis also suggests that feelings of shame are accompanied by ‘a sense of shrinking or of being small’, but on the other hand guilt is a ‘less devastating, less painful experience as the object of condemnation is a specific behaviour not the entire self.’ Another topic arisen by research is the judgement that shame and guilt are not ‘moral’ emotions. Researchers further demonstrate that guilt is a more adaptive emotion, ‘benefiting individuals and their relationships in a variety of ways.’ In contrast, recent research is building on the idea that shame is a moral emotion that can easily go awry [16] [17]

The psychological symptoms expressed by shame and guilt are also a point for consideration. Research has shown that proneness to shame is related to a wide variety of psychological symptoms. A number of psychologists have listed these symptoms; such as low Self-esteem, Depression, Anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Suicidal Ideation. It is noticeable that the negative implications of shame are widespread across ages and populations, and literature has shown that individuals who display continuous feelings of shame are prone to the range of psychological symptoms mentioned above. Nonetheless, guilt has been shown to display chronic self-blame and ‘obsessive rumination over one’s transgressions’ [18]. Recent research however, has theorised that guilt has many adaptive functions, and in particular the effects on interpersonal behaviour.

It is a frequent misinterpretation that as shame and guilt are ‘painful emotions’, they deter risky or inadvisable behaviour. One researcher concluded that guilt had a positive relationship on agreeing with statements such as ‘I would not steal something I needed, even if I were sure I could get away with it’ [19]. A further study also showed how the proneness of guilt in college students was inversely associated to ‘self-reported criminal activity’ [20]. The results are very different when considering how shame can effect risky or inadvisable behaviours as research has shown that shame does not carry the same effect as guilt. Results suggest that shame may in fact have the opposite effect. In a child study it was found that proneness to shame increased the presence of behaviours presented on the Child Behaviour Checklist [21]. A relationship between proneness to shame and intentions towards illegal behaviour has also been explored [22].

Cultural views[edit]

Traditional Japanese society, Korean society and Ancient Greek society 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) This may lead to more of a focus on etiquette than on ethics as understood in Western civilization. This has led 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)".

In literature[edit]

Guilt was a main theme in John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Fyodor Dostoevsky'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. It was a major theme in many works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and is an almost universal concern of novelists who explore inner life and secrets.

Remedies for guilt[edit]

Guilt can sometimes be remedied by: punishment (a common action and advised or required in many legal and moral codes); forgiveness (as in transformative justice); or sincere remorse (as with confession in Catholicism or restorative justice). Guilt can also be remedied through intellectualization or cognition [23] (the understanding that the source of the guilty feelings was illogical or irrelevant). Law does not usually accept the agent's self-punishment, but some ancient codes did: in Athens, the accused could propose their own remedy, which could, in fact, be a reward, while the accuser proposed another, and the jury chose something in-between. This forced the accused to effectively bet on his support in the community, as Socrates did when he proposed "room and board in the town hall" as his fate. He lost, and drank hemlock, a poison, as advised by his accuser.

Overguilt and underguilt[edit]

A patient who takes responsibility for their own health can usually do something about it. A major disadvantage of taking control of one's health though is that when some problem arises, one may blame oneself too severely. This overguilt may act like a negative placebo: the person gets sick, needlessly castigates himself, then feels unworthy to the point that he doesn't take care of himself, and the next day the symptom is worse. Later, if the doctor consulted is visibly disappointed in the persons lack of improvement, he may spiral further downward.

At the same time that overguilt should be avoided, so should underguilt. As a psychiatric wit put it, "We all vary between being depressive or paranoid; when depressive, we blame everything on ourselves; when paranoid, we blame it all on other people."[citation needed] Somewhere in the middle lies the reasonable amount of guilt that comprises appropriate response to having made a mistake in health, as in other areas. Although guilt is an unpleasant feeling, it can be borne more readily when viewed in its wider context. Suffering is reduced when it can be located within a coherent set of meanings. Yet to try and absolve oneself completely from guilt when things go wrong may also have negative effect. In a study by psychologists, a group of recently divorced women who felt themselves at least partially at fault (i.e not helpless pawns) recovered their good health and spirits faster than a group who kept insisting that they had been entirely innocent.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Guilt." Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2nd ed. Ed. Bonnie R. Strickland. Gale Group, Inc., 2001. 2006. 31 December, 2007
  2. ^ The Pursuit of Health, June Bingham & Norman Tamarkin, M.D., Walker Press)
  3. ^ Morten Birket-Smith; Millon, Theodore; Erik Simonsen; 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. ISBN 1-57230-864-8. 
  4. ^ Hare RD, Neumann CN (2005). "The PCL-R Assessment of Psychopathy: Development, Structural Properties, and New Directions". In Patrick CJ. Handbook of Psychopathy. New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 58–88. ISBN 1-59385-212-6. 
  5. ^ Pallanti S, Quercioli L (2000). "Shame and psychopathology". CNS Spectr. 5 (8): 28–43. PMID 18192938.  Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  6. ^ Buber M (1957). "Guilt and guilt feelings". Psychiatry. 20 (2): 114–29. PMID 13441838.  Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  7. ^ a b Branscombe, Nyla R. (2004). Collective Guilt: International Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521520835.  Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)
  8. ^ Tangney J P, Stuewig J, Mashek D J (2007). "Moral Emotions and Moral Behaviour". Annual Review of Psychology. 58: 345–372. 
  9. ^ Ferguson T J, Stegge H, Damhuis I (1991). "Children's understanding of guilt and shame". Child Development. 62: 827–839. 
  10. ^ Sabini J, Silver M (1997). "In defense of shame: shame in the context of guilt and embarrassment". J. Theory Soc. Behav. 27: 1–15. 
  11. ^ Smith R H, Webster J M, Parrot W G, Eyre H L (2002). "The tole of public exposure in moral and nonmoral shame and guilt". J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 83: 138–59. 
  12. ^ Shweder R A, Much N C, Mahapatra M, Park L (1997). "The 'Big Three' of morality (autonomy, community, divinity) and the 'Big Three' explanation of suffering". Morality and Health: 119–169. 
  13. ^ Tangney J P (1994). "The mixed legacy of the superego: adaptive and maladaptive aspects of shame and guilt". Empirical Persctives on Object Relations: 1–28. 
  14. ^ Tracy J L, Robins R W (2004). "Putting the self into self-conscious emotions: a theoretical model". Psychol. Inq. 15: 103–125. 
  15. ^ Shame and Guilt in Neurosis, H B Lewis, New York; Int. Univ. Press)
  16. ^ Baumeister R F, Stillwell A M, Heatherton T F (1994). "Guilt: an interpersonal approach". Psychol. Bull. 115: 243–267. 
  17. ^ Tangney J P (1991). "Moral affect: the good, the bad, and the ugly". Personal. Soc. Psychol. 61: 598–607. 
  18. ^ Tangney J P (1991). "Moral affect: the good, the bad, and the ugly". Personal. Soc. Psychol. 61: 598–607. 
  19. ^ Tangney J P (1994). "The mixed legacy of the superego: adaptive and maladaptive aspects of shame and guilt". Empirical Persctives on Object Relations: 1–28. 
  20. ^ Tibbetts S G (2003). "Self-conscious emotions and criminal offending". Psychol. Rep. 93: 101–26. 
  21. ^ Ferguson T J, Stegge H, Miller E R, Olsen M E (1999). "Guilt, shame, and symptoms in children". Dev. Psychol. 35: 347–357. 
  22. ^ Tibbetts S G (1997). "Shame and rational choice in offending decisions". Crim. Justice Behav. 24: 234–255. 
  23. ^ see cognitive therapy under [1]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Category:Emotion Category:Core issues in ethics Category:Morality Category:Social psychology