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What Does Guilt Do?

The role of guilt in repairing relationships.

If you do something wrong that hurts someone else, you feel guilty. Guilt is a valuable emotion, because it helps to maintain your ties to the people in your community. It provides a painful consequence for actions that would weaken the groups that you belong to.

Because guilt is painful, people often find ways to soothe their feelings by making up for their actions in some way. These repairs are also useful, because they help to re-strengthen people’s ties to the community that they have damaged.

A paper in the May, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Cynthia Cryder, Stephen Springer, and Carey Morewedge explored the way that people make these repairs. They contrasted two possibilities. One possibility is that when you do something wrong, you try to make it up to the specific people you hurt. A second possibility is that a guilty person will try to do something for other people to help them feel better.

One set of studies explored a hypothetical situation described by a story. In this case, college students read that they were part of a group project. In a control condition, they were responsible for giving a presentation about the results of the project, and they gave the presentation. In an experimental condition, they were responsible for giving a presentation, but overslept.

Later that day, participants read that they were having dinner at a restaurant with a group. Some people were told that they were having dinner with their project team. The dinner was BYOB (bring your own bottle), and so participants had to select how much they would pay for a bottle of wine. They were allowed to select from a set of wines ranging in price (and quality) from $8 to $20. In addition, they were told that after dinner when everyone had paid what they thought they owed, the table was $9 short on the bill. Participants were asked how much additional money they would contribute toward the shortfall.

Participants who were made to feel guilty were willing to pay more for a bottle of wine, and they contributed more toward the bill than people who were not made to feel guilty.

So far, this result just indicates that guilty people want to do something to help people. In another condition, people made to feel guilty were told that they were having dinner with a different group of people. In this case, people spent about the same amount on the wine and the bill as those in the control condition. So, people want to make repairs specifically to the people they harmed.

Two other results from this set of studies are also interesting.

One is that guilt is a specific emotion that is different from just feeling bad about an action. In another study, the researchers compared feeling guilty (using the oversleeping scenario just described) to a case where someone cheated on the project by using slides prepared by a group who did a similar project the previous year. In this case, the dinner scenario only included the need to add money to the dinner bill. Participants who felt guilty added more money to the bill than those who cheated.

The second is that guilt also affected real decisions of participants. In a clever study, research participants were made to feel guilty toward another participant. They were given an elaborate description of the experiment written in small print. Few participants read the whole set of instructions. Then, they were given the choice of eating either some fruit flavored jellybeans or some vomit flavored jellybeans. Unsurprisingly, most people chose the fruit flavored jellybeans. After making their choice, participants were told that “as they read in the description of the study,” another participant was going to have to eat the jellybeans they did not select. This made people feel guilty that they made someone else eat vomit flavored jellybeans. In a control condition, participants were told that their partner would eat the same flavor jellybeans they selected.

After eating the fruit flavored candy, participants played a dictator game. The dictator game comes from behavioral economics. Participants are given money (in this case $5) and are told that they can keep as much of it as they want, but they can choose how much they would like to give to a partner. Participants were told that their partner in this game was the same participant who would eat the jellybeans based on their initial selection. Participants whose initial choice forced their partner to eat vomit flavored beans gave about three times as much money to their partner as those whose initial choice forced their partner to eat fruit flavored beans.

These results show the positive power that guilt can have. Whenever you do something that could hurt another person, you run the risk of damaging your relationship with them. Your feelings of guilt lead you to be more generous to that person in a way that can demonstrate clearly that your relationship is valuable.

One thing that further research needs to explore is how people who have been hurt by someone else react to these gestures. It would be interesting to know whether you are more likely to forgive people who take actions to show that they value their relationship with you.

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Check out my book Smart Thinking (Perigee Books).

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