Guilt is a widely misunderstood emotion, having long suffered from an undeserved, bad reputation. The popular press abounds with articles offering advice on how to live a guilt-free life, many therapists identify guilt reduction as one of their short-term treatment goals, and no one wants to be regarded as a guilt-inducing mother. But much of the stigma of guilt can be attributed to people’s tendency to confuse guilt with shame. As it turns out, recent research suggests that, on balance, guilt is the more adaptive emotion, benefiting relationships in a variety of ways, without the many hidden costs of shame.
Guilt has been variously classified as one of the moral, self-conscious, social, and problematic emotions, underscoring the complexity of this affective experience and the many different roles guilt plays in people’s lives. Systematic theoretical considerations of guilt date back at least to Sigmund Freud, who viewed guilt as a reaction to violations of superego standards. According to Freud, guilt results when unacceptable ego-directed behaviors or id-based impulses conflict with the moral demands of the superego. Freud saw guilt as part of the normal human experience. But he also viewed unresolved or repressed feelings of guilt as a key component of many psychological symptoms. For decades, guilt remained largely in the province of psychoanalytic theory. Very little scientific research was conducted on guilt until the mid-1960s, and few psychological researchers distinguished between shame and guilt until the affect revolution of the late 1980s.
What Is the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?
People often use the terms guilt and shame interchangeably, as moral emotions that inhibit socially undesirable behavior or as problematic emotions that play a key role in a range of psychological symptoms. But much recent research indicates that these are distinct affective experiences. Both guilt and shame are emotions of self-blame that can arise in response to a broad range of failures, transgressions, and social blunders. The crux of the difference between these two emotions centers on the focus of one’s negative evaluation. When people feel guilt, they feel badly about a specific behavior—about something they’ve done. When people feel shame, they feel badly about themselves. This differential emphasis on self (“I did that horrible thing”) versus behavior (“I did that horrible thing j makes a big difference in the experience of the emotion and in the emotion’s implications for psychological adjustment and interpersonal behavior. Whereas feelings of shame (about the self) involve a sense of shrinking, a sense of worthlessness, and a desire to escape the shame-inducing situation, feelings of guilt (about a specific behavior) involve a sense of tension, remorse, and regret over the bad thing done. People in the midst of a guilt experience often report a nagging focus or preoccupation with the transgression, thinking of it over and over, wishing they had behaved differently. Rather than motivating a desire to hide, guilt typically motivates reparative behavior: confessing, apologizing, or somehow undoing the harm that was done. Thus, feelings of guilt are more apt to keep people constructively involved in the guilt-inducing situation.
An advantage of guilt is that the scope of blame is less extensive and far-reaching than in shame. In guilt, one’s primary concern is with a particular behavior, somewhat apart from the self. Because guilt doesn’t threaten one’s core identity, it is less likely than shame to trigger defensive denial or retaliation. In effect, guilt poses people with a much more manageable problem than shame. It’s much easier to change a bad behavior than it is to change a bad self.
Guilt Appears to Be the More Adaptive Moral Emotion
Five sets of research finding indicate that guilt is the more moral, adaptive emotion, relative to shame. First, shame and guilt lead to contrasting motivations or action tendencies. Shame is typically associated with a desire to deny, hide, or escape; guilt is typically associated with a desire to repair. In this way, guilt is apt to orient people in a constructive, proactive, future-oriented direction, whereas shame is apt to move people toward separation, distancing, and defense.
Second, there appears to be a special link between guilt and empathy. Interpersonal empathy involves the ability to take another person’s perspective, to really know (and feel) what another person is feeling. In turn, empathy motivates prosocial, helping behavior; it inhibits aggression; and it is an essential component of warm, rewarding relationships. Numerous studies of children, adolescents, and adults show that guilt-prone individuals are generally empathic individuals. (In contrast, shame-proneness is associated with an impaired capacity for other-oriented empathy and a propensity for self-oriented personal distress responses.) Similar results emerge when considering feelings of shame and guilt in the moment. Individual differences aside, when people describe personal guilt experiences, they convey greater empathy and concern for the victims of their transgressions, compared to descriptions of shame experiences. By focusing on a bad behavior (as opposed to a bad self), people experiencing guilt are relatively free of the egocentric, self-involved process of shame. Instead, their focus on a specific behavior highlights the consequences of that behavior for distressed others, facilitating an empathic response.
Third, perhaps owing to the link between feelings of guilt and empathy, guilt-prone people are inclined to manage and express their anger in a constructive fashion. Although guilt-prone individuals are about as likely as the average person to become angry in the course of everyday life, once angered they are inclined to work toward addressing the problem in an open, nonhostile manner, using their anger to make changes for the better. For example, when angered, guilt-prone people are motivated to fix the situation, are less likely to become aggressive, and are more likely to discuss the matter openly and rationally. In contrast, people prone to feel shame (about the entire self) are more apt to use aggressive and other destructive strategies for expressing anger.
Fourth, findings from studies of people from many walks of life indicate that guilt is useful in helping people avoid sin and persevere on a moral path throughout life. For example, among college students, guilt-proneness is associated with endorsing such items as “I would not steal something I needed, even if I were sure I could get away with it.” Guilt-prone adolescents are less inclined to become delinquent than their non-guilt-prone peers. Children prone to shame-free guilt in the fifth grade are, in young adulthood, less likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated. They are more likely to practice safe sex and less likely to abuse drugs. Even among adults already at high risk, guilt-proneness appears to serve a protective function. In a longitudinal study of jail inmates, guilt-proneness assessed shortly after incarceration was related to lower levels of recidivism and substance abuse during the first year after release.
Finally, contrary to popular belief, shame-free guilt does not carry with it high costs in psychological adjustment and well-being. When measures are used that are sensitive to the distinction between shame (about the self) and guilt (about a specific behavior), the propensity to experience guilt is essentially unrelated to psychological symptoms. Numerous independent studies converge: Shame, but not guilt, is related to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and a host of other psychological problems.
When Does Guilt Become Maladaptive?
Why is guilt frequently cited as a symptom in such psychological disorders as anxiety and depression? What is the chronic, ruminative guilt described by so many clinicians? One possibility is that many of these problematic guilt experiences are actually feelings of guilt fused with feelings of shame. It seems likely that when a person begins with a guilt experience (“Oh, look at what a horrible thing I have done”) but then magnifies and generalizes the event to the self (“…and aren’t I a horrible person”), many of the advantages of guilt are lost. Not only is a person faced with tension and remorse over a specific behavior that needs to be fixed, but also he or she is saddled with feelings of contempt and disgust for a bad, defective self. In effect, shame-fused guilt may be just as problematic as shame itself.
In addition, it is worth noting that most measures that distinguish between shame and guilt focus on situations in which responsibility or culpability is relatively unambiguous. People are asked to imagine events in which they clearly failed or transgressed in some way. Problems are likely to arise when people develop an exaggerated or distorted sense of responsibility for events beyond their control. Survivor guilt is a prime example of such a problematic emotional reaction that has been consistently linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological symptoms.
Is Guilt Beneficial?
Guilt’s benefits are most evident when people acknowledge their failures and transgressions and take appropriate responsibility for their misdeeds. In such situations, the interpersonal benefits of guilt do not appear to come at an undue cost to the individual. The propensity to experience shame-free guilt in response to clear transgressions is generally unrelated to psychological problems, whereas shame is consistently associated with maladaptive processes and outcomes at multiple levels. When considering the welfare of the individual, his or her relationships, and the society at large, guilt is the moral emotion of choice.
- Tangney, J. P. (1990). Assessing individual differences in proneness to shame and guilt: Development of the Self-Conscious Affect and Attribution Inventory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 102-111.
- Tangney, J. P., Miller, R. S., Flicker, L., & Barlow, D. H. (1996). Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1256-1269.