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According to researchers, we spend five hours each week feeling guilty. Why? Scientists believe that guilt evolved to alert us to behaviour which violates our personal moral code. Sometimes, the mere anticipation of guilt is enough to prevent us from lying, cheating or stealing. At other times, it might not be, but it will prompt us to try and ‘fix’ things, and act as a deterrent to repeating the behaviour in the future. Research has found that those who feel guilty about having committed a crime are less likely to reoffend. Serial killers, in contrast, often claim not to experience guilt. “One of the markers of a psychopath is that the person doesn’t experience guilt at all,” says psychology professor Jayne Bybee.
The surprising upsides of guilt
Guilt is one of the cornerstones of the co-operation on which human society has been built – and continues to run, more or less successfully. It seems to emerge around the age of 3, when children begin to forge an understanding of actions and consequences. But it may have even further reaching benefits.
Evidence indicates that people who are more prone to guilt are more empathetic, co-operative and responsive to signs of distress in others, less inclined to prejudice and more likely to undertake volunteer work, as well as being less likely to commit crimes. Guilt-prone individuals are more likely to be selected as leaders, whilst defendants who exhibit signs of guilt in the courtroom receive less stringent punishments.
Guilt can also act as a more general motivational force. Students induced to feel guilty in one experimental study were more likely to pick free academic supplies over DVDs and music downloads.
The downsides of guilt
However, too much guilt could be, quite literally, paralysing. Research indicates that guilt can cause concentration, productivity and creativity to suffer. It also makes you feel heavier – and not just metaphorically speaking. Those burdened by guilt tend to exaggerate estimates of their own bodyweight, and to judge physical activities as requiring more effort.
Guilt vs. shame
Then, of course, there’s guilt’s self-obsessed cousin, shame, thought to emerge around the age of 2. In essence, shame ascribes blame to you as a person, whilst guilt ascribes blame to your behaviour (in other words, shame is “I am bad”; guilt is “I did something bad”).
The intense self-focus associated with shame is associated with less productive outcomes than the other-focus associated with guilt. Whilst guilt seems to encourage the formulation of constructive solutions, research has linked shame not only with avoidance, denial and attempts to ‘pass the buck’, but with addictions, depression, aggression, eating disorders and suicide. However, the results of other studies have marked shame as a stronger motivator of change.
How to turn guilt around
Don’t let it turn into shame. Remind yourself that doing something bad doesn’t make you a bad person.
Take positive action. Apologise to the person or people whom your actions have affected, and try to think of something you can do to benefit them.
Harness your emotions. Guilt can be a great motivator – make the most of it by working off your to-do list or signing up to spend a couple of hours a week volunteering.