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Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes—accurately or not—that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a moral standard, and bears significant responsibility for that violation.[1] It is closely related to the concept of remorse.


Guilt is an important factor in perpetuating Obsessive–compulsive disorder symptoms.[2] Guilt and its associated causes, merits, and demerits are common themes in psychology and psychiatry. Both in specialized and in ordinary language, guilt is an affective state in which one experiences conflict at having done something that one believes one should not have done (or conversely, having not done something one believes one should have done). It gives rise to a feeling which does not go away easily, driven by 'conscience'. Sigmund Freud described this as the result of a struggle between the ego and the superego - parental imprinting. Freud rejected the role of God as punisher in times of illness or rewarder in time of wellness. While removing one source of guilt from patients, he described another. This was the unconscious force within the individual that contributed to illness, Freud in fact coming to consider "the obstacle of an unconscious sense of the most powerful of all obstacles to recovery."[3] For his later explicator, Lacan, guilt was the inevitable companion of the signifying subject who acknowledged normality in the form of the Symbolic order.[4]

Alice Miller claims that "many people suffer all their lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt, the sense of not having lived up to their parents' argument can overcome these guilt feelings, for they have their beginnings in life's earliest period, and from that they derive their intensity."[5] This may be linked to what Les Parrott has called "the disease of false guilt....At the root of false guilt is the idea that what you feel must be true."[6] If you feel guilty, you must be guilty!

The philosopher Martin Buber underlined the difference between the Freudian notion of guilt, based on internal conflicts, and existential guilt, based on actual harm done to others.[7]

Guilt is often associated with anxiety. In mania, according to Otto Fenichel, the patient succeeds in applying to guilt "the defense mechanism of denial by being a person without guilt feelings."[8]

In psychological research, guilt can be measured by using questionnaires, such as the Differential Emotions Scale (Izard's DES), or the Dutch Guilt Measurement Instrument.[citation needed]


Fenichel points out that "mastery of guilt feelings may become the all-consuming task of a person's whole life...'counter-guilt.'"[9] Various techniques are possible, including repression. Freud pointed out that "as a rule the ego carries out repressions in the service and at the behest of its superego; but this is a case in which it has turned the same weapon against its harsh taskmaster."[10] The problem, according to Eric Berne, is that because the superego is "a jealous master whose punishments are difficult to avoid", one may (in a return of the repressed) "begin to feel guilty many years afterwards and perhaps break down...under the long-continued reproaches of the Superego."[11]

Projection is another defensive tool with wide applications. It may take the form of blaming the victim: The victim of someone else's accident or bad luck may be offered criticism, the theory being that the victim may be at fault for having attracted the other person's hostility.[12] Alternatively, in Fenichel's words, "the superego is reprojected onto external objects for the purpose of getting rid of guilt feelings...using external objects as "witnesses" in the fight against the superego."[13] Here the danger is of creating ideas of reference.

Another form of Projection is self-harm or self-blame. "Guilty people punish themselves if they have no opportunity to compensate the transgression that caused them to feel guilty. It was found that self-punishment did not occur if people had an opportunity to compensate the victim of their transgression."[14] Some forms of self-inflicted punishment are self-denied pleasure, or not allowing oneself to enjoy opportunities or benefits due to guilty feelings that cannot be resolved through compensation.

Lack of guilt in people with psychopathy

Individuals high in psychopathy lack any true sense of guilt or remorse for harm they may have caused others. Instead, they rationalize their behavior, blame someone else, or deny it outright.[15] A person with psychopathy has a tendency to be harmful to his or herself and to others. They have little ability to plan ahead for the future. An individual with psychopathy will never find themselves at fault because, they will do whatever it takes to benefit themselves without reservation. A person that does not feel guilt or remorse would have no reason to find themselves at fault for something that they did with the intention of hurting another person. To a person high in psychopathy, their actions can always be rationalized to be the fault of another person. [16] This is seen by psychologists as part of a lack of moral reasoning (in comparison with the majority of humans), an inability to evaluate situations in a moral framework, and an inability to develop emotional bonds with other people due in part to a low emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and asses the emotions of others. Some studies indicate that the ability to read and work with the emotions of others can be a better predictor for one's occupational success than general intelligence. [17] It is a common mistake to confuse antisocial personality disorder with psychopathy. Antisocial Personality Disorder falls under Cluster B of the DSM axis, which includes personality disorders that are considered emotional, erratic, and dramatic. Those with Antisocial Personality Disorder show little concern for others, lack the ability to plan for the future, and show deceitfulness. Antisocial Personality Disorder and psychopathy are similar in the way that individuals with these conditions do not display feelings of remorse, guilt, or regard for others. However, these conditions are not interchangeable. Individuals with psychopathy have emotional resilience and a fearless temperament that those with Antisocial Personality Disorder do not have. [18][19] Antisocial Personality Disorder can also be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a mental illness; psychopathy cannot.

The strong sense of self-centered impulsivity and the lack of remorse shown by those with psychopathy has led to a strong correlation between criminal behavior and psychopathy. Due to a lack of guilt, a person showing signs of psychopathy will be able to recount the details of their violent crimes without hesitation in a casual manner and fixate on every detail of the day of the crime; including what they had for breakfast that morning. [20]

There are a number of those high in psychopathy that do not go on to commit criminal acts. Many successful Chief Executive Officers of companies around the world show signs of psychopathy. Individuals high in psychopathy are also attracted to jobs that require little emotional investment such as positions in law and in the media. Those that display signs of psychopathy can be very successful because they have the ability to be kind and charming as an effort to get what they want. Due to a lack of guilt, those with psychopathy are not bothered by hurting other people in the process of getting what they want. Those with psychopathy do not procrastinate and are assertive in getting what they want.[21]

Causes (etiology)

Evolutionary theories

Some evolutionary psychologists theorize that guilt and shame helped maintain beneficial relationships, such as reciprocal altruism.[22] If a person feels guilty when he harms another, or even fails to reciprocate kindness, he is more likely not to harm others or become too selfish. In this way, he reduces the chances of retaliation by members of his tribe, and thereby increases his survival prospects, and those of the tribe or group. As with any other emotion, guilt can be manipulated to control or influence others. As a highly social animal living in large groups that are relatively stable, we need ways to deal with conflicts and events in which we inadvertently or purposefully harm others. If someone causes harm to another, and then feels guilt and demonstrates regret and sorrow, the person harmed is likely to forgive. Thus, guilt makes it possible to forgive, and helps hold the social group together.

Social psychology theories

When we see another person suffering, it can also cause us pain. This constitutes our powerful system of empathy, which leads to our thinking that we should do something to relieve the suffering of others. If we cannot help another, or fail in our efforts, we experience feelings of guilt. From the perspective of group selection, groups that are made up of a high percentage of co-operators outdo groups with a low percentage of co-operators in between-group competition. People who are more prone to high levels of empathy-based guilt may be likely to suffer from anxiety and depression; however, they are also more likely to cooperate and behave altruistically. This suggests that guilt-proneness may not always be beneficial at the level of the individual, or within-group competition, but highly beneficial in between-group competition. [citation needed]

Other theories

Another common notion is that guilt is assigned by social processes, such as a jury trial (i. e., that it is a strictly legal concept). Thus, the ruling of a jury that O.J. Simpson or Julius Rosenberg was "guilty" or "not innocent" is taken as an actual judgment by the whole society that they must act as if they were so. By corollary, the ruling that such a person is "not guilty" may not be so taken, due to the asymmetry in the assumption that one is assumed innocent until proven guilty, and prefers to take the risk of freeing a guilty party over convicting innocents. Still others—often, but not always, theists of one type or another—believe that the origin of guilt comes from violating universal principles of right and wrong. In most instances, people who believe this also acknowledge that even though there is proper guilt from doing 'wrong' instead of doing 'right,' people endure all sorts of guilty feelings which do not stem from violating universal moral principles.

Collective guilt

Template:Essay Collective guilt (or group guilt) is the unpleasant and often emotional reaction that results among a group of individuals when it is perceived that the group illegitimately harmed members of another group. It is often the result of “sharing a social identity with others whose actions represent a threat to the positivity of that identity.”[23] Different intergroup inequalities can result in collective guilt, such as receiving unearned benefits and privileges or inflicting more extreme forms of harm on an out-group (including genocide). Individuals are generally motivated to avoid collective guilt in order to maintain a positive social identity. There are many ways of decreasing collective guilt, such as denying harm or justifying actions. Collective guilt can also lead to positive outcomes, such as promoting intergroup reconciliation and reducing negative attitudes towards the out-group.[citation needed]

There are several causes of collective guilt: salient group identity, collective responsibility, and perception of unjust in-group actions. In order for an individual to experience collective guilt, he must identify himself as a part of the in-group. “This produces a perceptual shift from thinking of oneself in terms of ‘I’ and ‘me’ to ‘us’ or ‘we’.”[23] Only when an individual is salient with the in-group can he or she perceive responsibility for the harmful actions of the group, past and present. In addition to in-group salience, an individual will only feel collective guilt if he or she views the in-group as responsible for the harmful actions done to the out-group. For instance, in two studies by the American Mosaic Project, racial inequality in the United States was framed as either “Black Disadvantage” or “White Privilege.” When the term “black disadvantage” was used to describe racial inequality, white participants felt less collectively responsible for the harm done to the out-group, which lessened collective guilt. In comparison, when “white privilege” was used, white participants felt more collectively responsible for the harm done, which increased collective guilt.[citation needed] .

Lastly, an individual has to believe the actions caused by the in-group were unjustifiable, indefensible, and unforgivable. If an individual can justify the actions of the in-group, this will lessen collective guilt. Only when an individual views the in-group actions as reprehensible will that individual feel collective guilt. Collective guilt is not only a result of feeling empathy for the out-group. It can also be caused by self-conscious emotion that stems from the questioning of the morality of the in-group.[citation needed]

There are various methods of reducing collective guilt. Some of these methods are denying the in-group’s harmful actions, denying responsibility, claiming actions by the in-group were just, focusing on positive aspects caused by the harmful action, and pointing out positive things in other areas to counterbalance the harm. First, by denying the in-group’s harmful actions, or downplaying the severity of the harm, the effect of collective guilt is lessened. If the individual or group can neglect to observe the harm caused by their actions, either consciously or unconsciously, then the individual will not feel collective guilt. If a person does not feel that the in-group is responsible for the harm caused by actions, collective guilt will be lessened. Additionally, if a person believes that only individuals are responsible for their own actions, and not a collective group, then they can deny the existence of collective responsibility, thereby reducing feelings of collective guilt. An individual can rationalize the actions of the in-group. If the individual believes that there were just reasons for the harm inflicted, collective guilt is likely to be reduced. For instance, out-group dehumanization is one effective means towards justifying the in-group’s actions. By focusing on the positive aspects of the in-group’s actions rather than the harmful effects, collective guilt can be reduced. For instance, an individual or group may choose to focus on the benefits of high levels of production and consumption, rather than on its harmful effects on the environment.[citation needed]

Cultural views

Traditional Japanese society, Korean society and Chinese culture[24] are sometimes said to be "shame-based" rather than "guilt-based", in that the social consequences of "getting caught" are seen as more important than the individual feelings or experiences of the agent (see the work of Ruth Benedict). The same has been said of Ancient Greek society, a culture where, in Bruno Snell's words, if "honour is destroyed the moral existence of the loser collapses."[25]

This may lead to more of a focus on etiquette than on ethics as understood in Western civilization, leading some[attribution needed] in Western civilizations to question why the word ethos was adapted from Ancient Greek with such vast differences in cultural norms. Christianity and Islam inherit most notions of guilt from Judaism, Persian, and Roman ideas, mostly as interpreted through Augustine, who adapted Plato's ideas to Christianity. The Latin word for guilt is culpa, a word sometimes seen in law literature, for instance in mea culpa meaning "my fault (guilt)."


Guilt, from O.E. gylt "crime, sin, fault, fine, debt,", derived from O.E. gieldan "to pay for, debt." The mistaken use for "sense of guilt" is first recorded 1690. "Guilt by association" is first recorded in 1941. "Guilty" is from O.E. gyltig, from gylt.

Dealing with guilt

Guilt can sometimes be remedied by punishment (a common action and advised or required in many legal and moral codes), by forgiveness (as in transformative justice), or by sincere remorse (as with confession in Catholicism or restorative justice). Guilt can also be remedied through cognition, the understanding that the source of the guilty feelings was illogical or irrelevant. Law does not usually accept the agent's self-punishment, but some ancient codes did so: in Athens the accused was permitted to propose his or her own remedy, which might in fact be a reward, while the accuser proposed another, and the jury chose between. This forced the accused to effectively bet on his support in the community - as Socrates did when he proposed "room and board in the town hall" as his fate. He lost, and drank hemlock, a poison, as advised by his accuser.

See also


  1. "Guilt." Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2nd ed. Ed. Bonnie R. Strickland. Gale Group, Inc., 2001. 2006. 31 December 2007
  2. Leslie J. Shapiro, LICSW. Pathological guilt: A persistent yet overlooked treatment factor in obsessive-compulsive disorder —. URL accessed on 27 November 2012.
  3. Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11)p. 390-1
  4. Catherine Belsey, Shakespeare in Theory and Practice (2008) p. 25
  5. Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child (1995) p. 99-100
  6. Parrott, p. 158-9
  7. Buber M (May 1957). Guilt and guilt feelings. Psychiatry 20 (2): 114–29.
  8. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 409-10
  9. Fenichelp. 496
  10. Freud, p. 393
  11. Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (Penguin 1976) p. 191
  12. The Pursuit of Health, June Bingham & Norman Tamarkin, M.D., Walker Press
  13. Fenichel, p. 165 and p. 293
  14. Nelissen, R. M. A., & Zeelenberg, M. (2009). When guilt evokes self-punishment: Evidence for the existence of a dobby effect. Emotion, 9(1), 118-122. doi:10.1037/a0014540
  15. Morten Birket-Smith; Millon, Theodore; Erik Simonsen; Davis, Roger E. (2002). "11. Psychopathy and the Five-Factor Model of Personality, Widiger and Lynam" Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behavior, 173–7, New York: The Guilford Press.
  16. Kosson, D.S., C. S., Forth, A. E., Salekin, R. T., Hare, R. D., Krischer, M. K., & Sevecke, K (2013). Factor structure of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL:YV) in adolescent females.. Psychological Assessment.
  17. Hare, R.D., T.J. Hare (1991). Psychopathy and the DSM-IV criteria for antisocial personality disorder. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology.
  18. Neal, T.S., M. Sellbom (2012). ). Examining the factor structure of the Hare Self-Report Psychopathy Scale. Journal Of Personality Assessment,.
  19. Hare, R.D., S.D. Harpur (1991). Psychopathy and the DSM-IV criteria for antisocial personality disorder. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology.
  20. Hare, R.D., S.D. Harpur (1991). Psychopathy and the DSM-IV criteria for antisocial personality disorder. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology.
  21. Kosson, D.S., Neumann, C. S., Forth, A. E., Salekin, R. T., Hare, R. D., Krischer, M. K., & Sevecke, K. (2013). ). Factor structure of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL:YV) in adolescent females.. Psychological Assessment,.
  22. Pallanti S, Quercioli L (August 2000). Shame and psychopathology. CNS Spectr 5 (8): 28–43.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Branscombe, Nyla R.; Bertjan Doosje (2004). Collective Guilt: International Perspectives, Cambridge University Press.
  24. Bill Brugger, China, Liberation and Transformation (1981) p. 18-19
  25. Quoted in M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (1967) p. 136


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