Does Guilt Inadvertently Lead to More Guilt?

Guilt is a very strong, negative emotion that arises mostly when you have hurt another person (let’s call this hurt person the “victim”). It indicates to us that we have done something very wrong, and that we should do something to repair the relationship with that victim. Consequently, almost all guilt researchers state that it leads to a willingness to make amends. In other words, when people experience guilt, they want to make up for what they have done wrong, and they will act socially toward others until the problem has been solved. From this point of view, guilt would thus not inadvertently lead to more guilt: The guilt feelings would just disappear as soon as the person has made up for the wrong.

However, recent research suggests that guilt might not work exactly in that way. My colleagues and I suggest that while guilt might indeed motivate social behavior toward the victim, it might have negative consequences for others. More specifically, when people experience guilt, all their attention is focused upon the victim, and less so on other people in their surroundings. As a result, people will act socially toward the victim in order to make up their mistakes, but can hurt other people with exactly those actions.

We conducted multiple experiments in which participants hurt another person. After this, participants were given the opportunity to make up for their mistake by, for example, dividing money among themselves, the victim, and a third other person. The results showed that participants offered more money to the victim to make up compared with a normal situation in which participants did not experience any emotion. This supports the idea that guilt stimulates social behavior toward the victim. But this higher amount of money for the victim came at the expense of the third other: Participants experiencing guilt feelings kept the same amount of money for themselves compared with normal situations, but they offered less money to the third other person. In another experiment, participants were willing to cancel appointments with others to make a new appointment with the victim. This suggests that people make new mistakes and hurt other people in order to make up for their first mistake toward the “original victim”!

The central question is: When people hurt others in order to make up for their original mistakes, do they experience guilt toward those others? Would making up guilt inadvertently lead to more guilt? This is exactly the question we were interested in. After having found these circular damaging effects, we conducted some experiments in which we focused on the guilt feelings over time. Contrary to what you would expect, participants did not report any guilt feelings after having hurt those others. Guilt motivated people to focus completely on the victim, and thus to pay no attention at all to those third others. They would simply not be completely consciously aware of hurting those others. And therefore, guilt does not lead inadvertently to guilt.

Ilona de Hooge is a professor of marketing management in the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University.

Category: Q&A

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