The feeling that you’ve done harm to someone, even when you haven’t, isn’t a particularly pleasant state of mind. People who have the tendency to feel guilty are likely to expend a fair degree of mental energy on concern about the negative effects their behavior may have had on other people. This implies, according to La Trobe University’s (Australia) Matt Treeby and colleagues (2016), that the guilt-prone should be quite sensitive to the emotions of other people. If you’re worried that you’ve hurt someone else, they reason, you’ll be highly attuned to judging people’s emotional states (and whether they’re mad at you) from their faces. This belief that you’ve harmed someone else, furthermore, is different from shame, in which you feel that your negative behavior has caused others to view you in a negative light. According to the authors, “With experiences of shame, the focus of the individual’s negative evaluation is squarely on the self … that ‘I am a terrible person.’” Guilt, by contrast, leads people to focus on what they did wrong, and how they could make amends (“I need to fix this”) (p. 1504).
Guilt, then, has various adaptive qualities in terms of helping you interact with others in a more prosocial fashion. If you’re worried about hurting people, you’ll try to restrain your anger or aggression. Moreover, according to the Australian team, you’ll also stay away from high-risk impulsive or addictive behaviors. People who experience shame, by contrast, try to direct attention away from themselves when they've behaved badly, wanting to hide their defects from others. Guilt, they propose, “is unpleasant and niggling, but less aversive than shame” (p. 1505).
Previous research conducted a number of years ago by George Mason University’s June Tangney (e.g. Tangney, 1991), showed that people inclined toward guilt were higher in empathy than those inclined toward shame. Not only do the guilt-prone want to gauge accurately the emotions of others, but they also can resonate more closely to the way they’re feeling when they’ve been wronged. Those who experience shame on a frequent basis aren’t really all that concerned about the feelings of others- they only want to reduce their own unpleasant emotional state associated with being shown at fault. It was a small but important leap for the Treeby et al. team to then propose that people inclined toward guilt, with their higher capacity for empathy and better social skills, would also be more accurate at matching facial expressions with the emotions the faces were intended to convey.
To test this hypothesis, the La Trobe researchers recruited a sample of 363 students and community residents ranging from 18 to 67 years of age (mean age= 27) to complete a measure of “self-conscious affect” that included scales measuring guilt-proneness and shame-proneness as well as a facial emotion reading test. In the self-conscious affect test, participants were presented with negative scenarios such as those you might encounter in everyday life (such as making a mistake at work, and getting criticized by the boss as a result). Participants were then instructed to choose the response that best fit their reactions. Guilt would be indicated by the choice “I should have recognized the problem and done a better job,” and shame by the choice “You would feel like you wanted to hide.” For the facial recognition test, participants were shown a standard set of emotion-conveying faces depicting the emotions of anger, sadness, happiness, fear, disgust, and shame. Their task was to match the face with the emotion.
In general, the participants received higher scores on the guilt- than the shame-proneness task, and they were most accurate at judging happiness, although the average scores on anger and sadness were a close second. As predicted, across the board, people high in guilt-proneness were in fact better at matching the faces with their intended emotions, even when the emotions were shown at “low intensity” (i.e. were more ambiguous). Those high in shame-proneness had no such advantage.
This study’s novel contribution to the literature was the fact that the relationship between guilt and emotion-judging wasn’t just based on self-report but was demonstrated with a behaviorally-focused task. However, the study was correlational and thus it’s not possible to determine whether people who tend to feel guilty learn to be better at reading emotions in the faces of others, or whether their greater ability to empathize leads them to feel guilty on a more frequent basis. Therefore, when putting themselves into a fictional but realistic situation, their go-to response tends to be one of guilt.
If you’re the type of person who has this enhanced, built-in, guilt response, you’re probably already aware of the double-edged nature of this ability. On the one hand, you’ll be more attuned to the pain you cause others, but on the other hand, you’ll feel worse about what you’ve done than if you’re oblivious to the harmful outcomes of your actions. The converse, though, is perhaps even more important to consider. If you’re constantly worrying about your self-image when you’ve made a mistake instead of trying to rectify things, you’ll be much more likely to become someone that others tend to avoid.
Rather than feel guilty about feeling guilty, the present study suggests that you can own your guilt and see it as a positive attribute. The Treeby study also implies that your ability to feel empathy may make you less likely to commit those harmful acts in the first places. There’s no need to feel ashamed of feeling guilty and, in fact, it may be the one emotion best able to provide you with fulfillment in your relationships.
Tangney, J. P. (1991). Moral affect: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 598–607. doi:10.1037//0022-35126.96.36.1998
Treeby, M. S., Prado, C., Rice, S. M., & Crowe, S. F. (2016). Shame, guilt, and facial emotion processing: Initial evidence for a positive relationship between guilt-proneness and facial emotion recognition ability. Cognition and Emotion, 30(8), 1504-1511. doi:10.1080/02699931.2015.1072497