The Science of Happiness. Register Today
   

 

Is guilt good?

By Alex Dixon | September 1, 2007 | 0 comments

Psychologists since Freud have argued that guilt plays a huge role in the development of morality, but there are competing views over how that actually happens. One camp thinks guilt acts in a negative way, deterring people from repeating the same bad behavior. Another camp believes guilt acts positively by motivating people to conform to social expectations.

A new study, published in the June issue of Psychological Science, tried to determine how—and whether—guilt is linked to positive behavior. Study participants, who were all white Americans, were hooked up to brain monitoring equipment and filled out a questionnaire measuring their levels of different emotions. They were then presented with a series of pictures of white, Asian, and black faces. Afterwards, on a private computer screen, they were shown a phony graph that led them to believe their brains had reacted negatively to the pictures of black faces and positively to the others. Then they filled out another questionnaire to measure their emotions again. As anticipated, their feelings of guilt shot up drastically. What’s more, their actual brain activity suggested that they felt inhibited, seeming to validate the first camp’s argument that guilt acts as a deterrent against bad behavior.

But the researchers then showed participants a series of magazine article headlines and asked them to rate how interested they were in reading each article. Participants who had felt guiltier than others were the ones most likely to express interest in articles with tips for reducing racial prejudice. Contrary to their earlier brain scans, their brain activity now indicated these participants wanted to take positive action, suggesting that the second camp’s view on guilt may also be right.

Taken together, the results support both camps’ assertions and suggest guilt may have two functions. It might initially make you feel bad, discouraging you from repeating the guilt-inducing behavior. But it might also encourage positive behavior, intended to reduce that feeling of guilt.

While the study sheds light on guilt’s positive function, lead researcher David M. Amodio says it also raises questions about people who don’t seem to experience guilt at all. “Chances are, they won’t learn from their mistakes and shouldn’t be expected to improve in their future behaviors,” he says.

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 
About The Author

Alex Dixon is a Greater Good editorial assistant.

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Most...

  
  

Greater Good Events

Joshua Wolf Shenk on Creativity and the Powers of Two
Hillside Club
September 25, 2014


Joshua Wolf Shenk on Creativity and the Powers of Two

Author Joshua Shenk in Conversation on creativity and dynamic duos with cofounder of Mother Jones, Adam Hochschild


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

29 Gifts By Cami Walker Walker’s life is in a downward spiral until she takes unusual advice from a friend: to give away 29 gifts in 29 days.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.

Dr. Christine Carter's blog on the science of raising happy kids.

» READ MORE
 

Sponsors

The Quality of Life Foundation logo Special thanks to

The Quality of Life Foundation for its support of the Greater Good Science Center

 
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement