Do you feel guilty?

Why is guilt such a variable emotion?
20 February 2018



Why is guilt so variable? Some people do bad things without feeling guilty, and other people feel guilty for very minor wrong doings.


Chris Smith put this question to neurocriminologist Kyle Treiber...

Kyle - There’s a couple of things that might make me, or other people like me, more likely to feel more guilty. One of them is, potentially, our emotional capacity so if we are emotionally reactive then we’re more likely to experience our emotions more strongly. But even beyond that element, there’s also the learnt aspect of it and, of course, our emotions  are very closely tied to our memories. A lot of our application of these emotions will depend on our experiences and what we’ve learned so, a much as I love my mother, she’s given me a lot of guilt trips. I think definitely  I’ll carry that on and I’ll definitely try not to do that to my own children.

But we feel very differently about the behaviours. We talk in criminology about the idea of rules and, of course, crime is a type of behaviour that breaks the rules, specifically the rules of law. But we’re interested in other kinds of deviants that might break more social norms that aren’t as formalised of rules. The guilt and also shame, which is a related emotion help to strengthen those rules so if we think that something’s wrong, we might not care about doing the right thing because we don’t feel very strongly about it, so the emotions back that up. If we think it’s wrong, and then we’re also to feel particularly guilty or ashamed about it then that rule is going to be stronger and we’re more likely to follow it.

I think a lot of the variation when you think about people feeling guilty about crime may not actually be a variation in their feelings and their emotions, but rather a variation in the rules that they think they should or shouldn’t follow. If they don’t think it’s wrong it doesn’t matter if they have strong emotions about it because they don’t care about doing the wrong thing. They don’t see that as wrong so the guilt won’t feed into, won’t be part of that decision making or eventually that crime.


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