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.

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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.

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