Collective accountability

For other uses, see Guilt (disambiguation).
"Guilty" redirects here. For other uses, see Guilty (disambiguation).

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.


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 psychopaths

Psychopaths lack any true sense of guilt or remorse for harm they may have caused to others. Instead, they rationalize their behavior, blame someone else, or deny it outright.[15] 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.[16]

Also known as sociopathy or antisocial personality disorder, this psychopathic lack of guilt used to be termed 'moral insanity'.[17] However, others suggest that the psychopath is in fact driven by a very severe but unconscious sense of guilt.[18]

Causes (etiology)

Evolutionary theories

Some evolutionary psychologists theorize that guilt and shame helped maintain beneficial relationships, such as reciprocal altruism.[19] 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.

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

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.”[20] 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.

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’.”[20] 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. .

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.

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.

Cultural views

Traditional Japanese society, Korean society and Chinese culture[21] 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."[22]

This may lead to more of a focus on etiquette than on ethics as understood in Western civilization, leading some 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.

In literature

Guilt is a main theme in John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, William Shakespeare's play Macbeth, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat", and many other works of literature. In Sartre's The Flies, the Furies (in the form of flies) represent the morbid, strangling forces of neurotic guilt which bind us to authoritarian and totalitarian power.[23]

Guilt is a major theme in many works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and is an almost universal concern of novelists who explore inner life and secrets.

In the Bible

Guilt in the Christian Bible is not merely an emotional state but is a legal state of deserving punishment. The Hebrew Bible does not have a unique word for guilt, but uses a single word to signify: "sin, the guilt of it, the punishment due unto it, and a sacrifice for it."[24] The Greek New Testament uses a word for guilt that means "standing exposed to judgment for sin" (e.g. Romans 3:19). In the Old Testament, the Bible says that through sacrifice one's sins can be forgiven. The New Testament says that this forgiveness is given as written in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 "3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." Some believe that the Old and New Testaments have differing opinions on the expiation of guilt because the Old Testaments were subject to the Age of Law and the New Testaments replace the Age of Law with the now current Age of Grace. However, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament salvation was granted based on God's grace and forgiveness (Gen 6:8; 19:19; Exo 33:12-17; 34:6-7). Animal sacrifices were only a symbol of the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Heb 10:1-4; 9-12). The whole world is guilty before God for abandoning him and his ways (Rom 3:9). In Jesus Christ God took upon himself the sins of the world and died on the cross to pay our debt(Rom 6:23). Those who repent and accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for their sins, will be redeemed by God and thus not guilty before him. They will be granted eternal life which will take effect when Jesus comes the second time (1 Thess 4:13-18). In contrast to surrounding nations which addressed their guilt with human sacrifice, the Israeli authors of the Bible called that an abomination. (1 Kings 11:7, Jer 32:35). The Bible agrees with pagan cultures that guilt creates a cost that someone must pay. (Heb 9:22 This assumption was expressed in the previous section, "Defences": "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.") But unlike pagan deities who demanded it be paid by humans, God, according to the Bible, loved us enough to pay it Himself, as a good father would, while calling us His "children" and calling Himself our "father". (Mat 5:45).

See also


Further reading

  • Adam Phillips, 'Guilt', in On Flirtation (1994), p. 138-147
  • Nina Coltart, 'Sin and the Super-ego', in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1992)

External links

  • Guilt, unconscious sense of
  • Michael Eigen, 'Guilt in an Age of Psychopathy'
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