In Praise of Guilt

How guilt strengthens social bonds and attachment.

By Paul Glanzrock, published July 1, 1994 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Can saying a hundred Hail Marys help you out in the eyes of your peers as well as those of God? Guilt, it's now clear, serves some very useful social functions.

It is really something between people, not just something inside them, says a trio of psychologists led by Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., of Case Western Reserve University. They argue that guilt strengthens social bonds and attachments in three ways:

  • It can promote closeness and emotional harmony by making people pay more attention to their partner's needs and emotional soft spots.
  • It can help relatively powerless souls get their way through the ubiquitous "guilt trip."
  • It can help rectify a volatile situation by making a wrongdoer feel bad about his or her transgression, which in turn can actually reduce the suffering of the victim involved.

Psychology and psychiatry have never lacked for explanations of guilt. Earlier views held it arose from fear of castration, fear of separation from the mother, or from a repressed wish to be punished.

But after reviewing tons of research, Baumeister and Co. see guilt as a kind of social glue rather than a product of the individual psyche. Its roots lie in empathy, or an individual's ability to feel the pain of others, and fear of alienation by the social group.

Reporting in the Psychological Bulletin, the psychologists describe some of the newer insights into guilt:

  • Women feel more guilt over moral transgressions than do men, who respond more to the fear of getting caught.
  • Levels of guilt and self-esteem are closely related. Individuals with low self-esteem are more prone to deep feelings of guilt than those with high self-esteem.
  • Confessions arising from guilt has been shown to increase calm and improve health in the confessor.

All in all, guilt motivates people to apologize, to attempt to make amends, to try to repair damage to relationships, to confess and seek forgiveness, and to change their behavior in order to please and satisfy their relationship partners.

Too much guilt, though, is no panacea. It can actually cause people to abandon a relationship to avoid unpleasant feelings. Further, constant "guilt trips" can generate resentment and lead to exploitation-by-guilt in a relationship.