Why do we experience guilt?

ADVERTISEMENT

It is pretty difficult to not feel guilty at some point or another in our lives. It is a rather normal part of human nature. Guilt plays a large role in how we behave in social situations and is that worried feeling we experience in our gut. However, psychologists have not yet agreed on what this complex emotion does for us.

In a sense, guilt is that punitive feeling that prevents us from doing the same negative things again. This is referred to by psychologists as withdrawal motivation.  But in another way, other researchers understand guilt in a more societal context. They believe as though guilt maintains human behavior on par with the moral standards of society, and is known as approach motivation, which is a more positive view of guilt.

guilt

A study published in Psychological Science combined these two views. The psychologists believed that guilt had mostly do to with withdrawal motivation at first, however then transformed into approach motivated behavior when it was possible to repair the situation.  They used guilt in the context of racial prejudice in order to test their theory.

In their research, they showed pictures of Asian, Black and White faces to study participants. They monitored the brain activity of the people by using EEG. Random scores were relayed to participants, telling them how they responded to the faces, either positively or negatively.  After participants were told that they had negatively responded to Black faces, they reportedly felt guilty, anxious and sad. However, their feelings of guilt were the strongest emotion, which was detected by reductions in their left-sided frontal asymmetry, which is highly related to approach motivation.

Basically, this proved that people feel withdrawal motivation, the punitive effects of guilt.The participants completed a different study where they were asked to read various magazine headlines which included a variety of prejudice reduction titles. They were then told that they negatively responded to black faces, and a significant shift in the left-sided cortical activity, which shows approach motivation. Therefore, when people were given the chance for reparation, their guilt served as a predictor of how much they were interested in reducing prejudice.

guilt2

The participants completed a different study where they were asked to read various magazine headline which included a variety of prejudice reduction titles. They were then told that they negatively responded to black faces, and a significant shift in the left-sided cortical activity, which shows approach motivation. Therefore, when people were given the chance for reparation, their guilt served as a predictor of how much they were interested in reducing prejudice.

This study shows that although guilt does not feel so good, it actually plays an important role in encouraging positive changes in social behavior.  There is still a lot more to learn about guilt and what it means for us. But on a personal level, next time you feel guilty, try asking yourself what you can learn from it.

ADVERTISEMENT