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Why We May Feel Guilty

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Guilt plays a vital role in the regulation of social behavior. That worried feeling in our gut often serves as the impetus for our stab at redemption. However, psychologists have trouble agreeing on the function of this complex emotion.


New research suggests that guilt is initially associated with withdrawal motivation, which then transforms into approach-motivated behavior when an opportunity for reparation presents itself. (Credit: iStockphoto/Angel Herrero de Frutos)

On one hand, the punitive feeling of guilt may keep you from repeating the same transgressive behavior in the future, which psychologists call “withdrawal motivation.” Conversely, some researchers view the function of guilt in a societal context, in that; it keeps people’s behavior in line with the moral standards of their community. This view emphasizes a more positive emotional experience and is associated with “approach motivation.”

In a new study, New York University psychologist, David M. Amodio, and his colleagues, Patricia G. Devine, and Eddie Harmon-Jones, sought to combine the two camps. The researchers believe that guilt is initially associated with withdrawal motivation, which then transforms into approach-motivated behavior when an opportunity for reparation presents itself. Furthermore, the researchers sought to test these questions about the functions guilt in the context of reducing racial prejudice.

To test their theory, the researchers showed participants pictures of White, Black, or Asian faces, while monitoring their brain activity using EEG. The researchers then relayed randomized scores to the participants, telling them whether they responded positively or negatively to the White, Black, and Asian faces.

After receiving feedback indicating that they had responded negatively toward Black faces, subjects reported significantly increased guilt, anxiety, and sadness. The increase in guilt was larger than the change in any other emotion. Their reports were confirmed by the EEG, which showed significant reduction in left-sided frontal asymmetry following feedback. A large body of literature contends that left-sided asymmetry corresponds to approach motivation. So, in this case, the participants were initially feeling the punitive effects of guilt, or withdrawal motivation.

The participants then completed another study in which they read a variety of magazine headlines. Interspersed among some filler headlines, were three titles pertaining to prejudice reduction (“Improving your interracial interactions,” 10 ways to reduce prejudice in everyday life,” and “Ways to eliminate your own racism in the new millennium”). The participants that were told they responded negatively toward black faces, revealed a large left-sided shift in frontal cortical activity while reading the prejudice-reduction titles, indicating approach motivation.

So, when subjects were given the opportunity for reparation, their feelings of guilt predicted their interest in prejudice-reducing behavior. Previously emotions have been considered relatively unchanging, basic, feeling states. Amodio’s research presents a new idea of emotions serving a dynamic motivational function for regulating behavior. These findings also suggest that although it feels bad, guilt plays a critical role in promoting prosocial changes in behavior, and Amodio’s research demonstrates these effects in context of reducing racial prejudice.

Psychol Sci. 2007 Jun;18(6):524-30.

A dynamic model of guilt: implications for motivation and self-regulation in the context of prejudice.

Amodio DM, Devine PG, Harmon-Jones E.

Department of Psychology, New York University, NY 10003, USA. david.amodio@nyu.edu

Guilt is widely recognized as an important self-regulatory emotion, yet alternative theoretical accounts view guilt primarily as either a punishment cue or a prosocial motivator. Integrating these views, we propose that guilt functions dynamically to first provide a negative reinforcement cue associated with reduced approach motivation, which transforms into approach-motivated behavior when an opportunity for reparation presents itself. We tested this hypothesis in the context of racial prejudice. White subjects viewed a multiracial series of faces while cortical activity was recorded using electroencephalography. Following bogus feedback indicating anti-Black responses, subjects reported elevated guilt, which was associated with changes in frontal cortical asymmetry indicating reduced approach motivation. When subjects were presented with an opportunity to engage in prejudice-reducing behavior, guilt predicted greater interest in prejudice reduction, which in turn was associated with an approach-related shift in frontal asymmetry. The results support a dynamic model in which guilt is associated with adaptive changes in motivation and behavior.

PMID: 17576266 [PubMed – in process]

Written by huehueteotl

July 31, 2007 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Psychology

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