Why Are Some People More Trustworthy?

Being prone to feeling guilt might be an accompanying trait.

Posted Aug 23, 2018

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When Sigmund Freud developed his ideas about the human psyche, he stated that our psyche is composed of three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The Id is the one responsible for our inner desires, that which is instinctive and satisfies our impulses; the Superego is responsible for our morality, our values, and for us feeling guilt; the Ego is the mediator between these two opposing forces and is in charge of balancing what we want to do and what we should do. 

All of us develop versions of these three characters to a certain degree. For example, there are those who have to manage their impulses a bit more, while others have to place more emphasis on their values. These are people who are usually more moralistic, principled, and/or with a tendency to feel pressure to do the right thing. 

In both cases, it's our job as mental health professionals to help people develop an Ego that's strong enough to listen to the needs of both of these parts. The healthy thing to do is allow ourselves the flexibility to honor all of them at a certain time. But, in this post, I'd like to focus on the guilt-related aspect of our minds and its importance in our emotional maturity and our interpersonal relationships. 

Guilt is often considered a negative feeling, but a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology identifies a potential advantage of it. 

Guilt-proneness and trustworthiness

According to Emma Levine and colleagues, "people who are guilt-prone are those who anticipate the guilt of doing something wrong or bad, which can make help prevent people for making the bad choice in the first place." Put simply, people who are guilt-prone are also show a greater tendency to make benevolent choices in their interactions with other people. The results of their research suggested that a predisposition to feeling guilt has a direct relationship with how reliable and trustworthy we are. In a series of experiments using economic games, they write, "We demonstrate that guilt-proneness predicts trustworthiness better than a variety of other personality measures." (We already knew that people's integrity can have a positive effect on the quality of our interpersonal relationships.)

What's the value of knowing these findings? 

These findings are valuable because they allow us to ascribe a positive value to guilt—an emotion most people want to run away from—while at the same time shining a light on the importance of the part of our minds in charge of enforcing our rules of right and wrong. 

This in no way exempts my guilt-prone comrades from working through this difficult feeling—as mentioned earlier, it's important to develop a strong enough Ego that will help us challenge these guilty feelings when they have no ground. But these findings can help us re-frame the way in which we teach the next generation good decision-making

Had you ever thought of looking at guilt on a positive light? What do you think of these findings?