Guilt, consequences, and evolution


There might be one or two things you feel guilty about right now. Maybe you’re reading this article instead of writing a paper or studying for that looming Monday midterm. Maybe you’ve spent too much time on Facebook or Twitter this week, or too much money maintaining your caffeine addiction at Timmies or Starbucks. Maybe you feel guilty about breaking your New Year’s resolution or a promise to a close friend.

We all know what guilt feels like—the heaviness in the bottom of your stomach, the uncomfortable sense that you need to fix what’s been damaged. Guilt seems to be a universal emotion that doesn’t account for age, gender, or culture; but where does it come from? And how does it develop? When you were four years old and stole your younger sibling’s favourite toy, did you feel guilty?

Guilt is commonly defined as the feeling of remorse that accompanies an offensive act, the violation of a moral rule, or deviance from a norm. Tina Malti, a professor at UTM and director of a laboratory that studies children’s emotional and social development, says guilt is much more than a lingering feeling of remorse.

According to Malti, guilt is a moral emotion, an emotion that lets you assess yourself with respect to others. Compared to more basic emotions—those tied to a physiological response, such as sadness, happiness, or fear—moral emotions like guilt require developed cognitive abilities.

“Guilt is a more complex emotion that requires perspective-taking skills,” said Malti. “The child has to understand what he or she did in relation to [other people], so we do think that guilt typically develops around six to seven years of age.”

Children as young as three to five years old may show precursors of guilt, Malti explained. She says these feelings are called precursors to guilt because a child may not be able to feel true guilt in all its aspects. For example, a child that young may feel sorry for the person they’ve wronged, but wouldn’t be able to take the perspective of the person and feel real remorse for their actions. Thus, your four-year-old self may not have felt guilty for stealing your sibling’s toy, but in your defence, your perspective-taking skills weren’t fully developed at the time.

So we know that very young children don’t feel what we would properly call “guilt”, but what about older children, adolescents, and (yes) university students? Guilt can linger in a person, but what is its purpose?

When you feel guilty, sometimes you’re motivated to act in ways that will erase that guilt. Freud proposed that we develop defence mechanisms to ease anxiety or guilty thoughts. We find ways to justify our actions to ease our feelings of guilt.

Some well-established evolutionary theories hold that guilt helps us maintain social relations. When we lived in tribes and hunter-gatherer societies, survival required the cooperation of other humans even more than it does today. Ostracism meant death, and getting along with others often led to a better-functioning group and a prolonged life.

“For example, if you feel guilty when you harm someone else, then I think it’s adaptive, because then at least you realize that you did something wrong and this can facilitate reparation or reparative behaviour—for example, an apology,” said Malki.

Guilt can also be maladaptive, though. Studies have found that high levels of guilt are reported by people with depression, and have shown that continually feeling guilty for a long time can lead to depressive symptoms. On the other hand, studies have also found that low levels of guilt are reported by people with psychological disorders, like psychopathy. Researchers at the University of Queensland have found that excessive guilt can lead to self-harm, and that this self-harm may reduce feelings of guilt.

In a 2010 study, Brock Bastian, a researcher at the university, had 62 participants write about one of two experiences: in one, participants wrote about excluding someone else from a social group, and in the other, they wrote about a neutral experience. After writing about the event, participants were asked to hold their hand in a bucket of water that was either ice-cold or warm. They then completed questionnaires to assess their levels of self-reported guilt and pain. Bastian found that participants who were asked to write about excluding another and given the bucket of cold water tended to leave their hand in the water longer. They also reported feeling more pain.

So is guilt maladaptive or adaptive? Does it depend on the situation? Should we pay close attention to guilt and act to reduce the feeling? Should we control our feelings of guilt beyond a certain point?

“I think there is probably something like an optimal level of guilt,” said Malti. “If you never feel guilty, that would be a problem. But if you feel extensive levels of guilt all the time, that would be maladaptive. At the same time, you know, being moral and being healthy—or feeling healthy—[are] not the same.”