Guilt is the state of being responsible for the commission of an offense.[1] It is also a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes—accurately or not—that he or she has violated a moral standard, and bears significant responsibility for that violation.[2] It is closely related to the concept of remorse.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies, by John Singer Sargent. 1921. The erinyes represent the guilt for murdering his mother.


Moral and legal definitions

"Guilt" is the obligation of a person who has violated a moral standard to bear the sanctions imposed by that moral standard. In legal terms, guilt means having been found to have violated a criminal law,[1] though law also raises 'the issue of defences, pleas, the mitigation of offences, and the defeasibility of claims'.[3]

A three-fold division is sometimes made between ' objective or legal guilt, which occurs when society's laws have been broken...Social guilt...[over] an unwritten law of social expectation', and finally the way ' Personal guilt occurs when someone compromises one's own standards'.[4]


Guilt and its associated causes, merits and demerits are common themes in psychology and psychiatry. Both in specialised 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 came to consider 'the obstacle of an unconscious sense of the most powerful of all obstacles to recovery'[5].

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' expectations....stronger than any intellectual insight, no argument can overcome these guilt feelings, for they have their beginnings in life's earliest period, and from that they derive their intensity and obduracy'.[6] This may be linked to what has been called 'the disease of false guilt....At the root of false guilt is the idea that what you feel must be true':[7] 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.[8]

Guilt is often associated with depression, and sometimes anxiety. In mania, the patient succeeds in applying to guilt 'the defense mechanism of denial by being a person without guilt feelings'.[9]


'The mastery of guilt feelings may become the all-consuming task of a person's whole life..."counter-guilt"'.[10] 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'.[11] The problem is that, 'since the latter 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'.[12]

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.[13] Alternatively, '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'.[14] Here the danger is of creating ideas of reference; of 'beginning to feel that everybody's judging me, that you're judging me, that, by yawning, you judge me, by being restless, you judge me...a very nice, juicy paranoia'.[15]

Lack of guilt of 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.[16] 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.[17]

Also known as sociopathy or antisocial personality disorder, this 'type of behaviour disorder in the past was called "moral insanity" or "moral imbecility"'.[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 percent of co-operators outdo groups with a low percent 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.[citation needed]

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 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 they 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 they view 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 US 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 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, than 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 Ancient Greek society 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). This may lead to more of a focus on etiquette than on ethics as understood in Western civilization. This has led 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," of unknown origin, though some suspect a connection to O.E. gieldan "to pay for, debt," but O.E.D. editors find this "inadmissible phonologically". 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. It 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".[21] 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 sin will be forgiven by the acceptance of Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Saviour (John 3:16). Accordingly, the old and new testaments have differing opinions on the expiation of guilt. It is also theoretically possible to fulfill conditions of both biblical guilt escape methods (A: pay a sacrifice for one's sins, and B: accept Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Saviour), yet still to be unable to let go of guilt, arguably because of failure at self-forgiveness.


Guilt can sometimes be remedied by: punishment (a common action and advised or required in many legal and moral codes); forgiveness (as in transformative justice); making amends (see reparation (legal) or acts of reparation), or ' important step in finding freedom from real guilt';[22] or by sincere remorse (as with confession in Catholicism or restorative justice). Guilt can also be remedied through intellectualisation or cognition [23] (the understanding that the source of the guilty feelings was illogical or irrelevant). Helping other people can also help relieve guilt feelings: 'thus guilty people are often helpful people...helping, like receiving an external reward, seemed to get people feeling better'.[24] There are also the so-called 'Don Juans of achievement...who pay the installments due their superego not by suffering but by achievements....Since no achievement succeeds in really undoing the unconscious guilt, these persons are compelled to run from one achievement to another'.[25]

Law does not usually accept the agent's self-punishment, but some ancient codes did: in Athens, the accused could propose their own remedy, which could, in fact, be a reward, while the accuser proposed another, and the jury chose something in-between. This forced the accused to effectively bet on his support in the community, as Socrates did when he proposed "room and board in the town hall" as his fate. He lost, and drank hemlock, a poison, as advised by his accuser.

Finally, although the research has not been done, guilt (like many other emotions) can sometimes wear out and be forgotten in the passage of time.

See also


  1. ^ a b [1]
  2. ^ "Guilt." Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2nd ed. Ed. Bonnie R. Strickland. Gale Group, Inc., 2001. 2006. 31 December 2007
  3. ^ Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (Penguin 1972) p. 139
  4. ^ Les Parrott, Shoulda Coulda Woulda (2003) p. 87
  5. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11)p. 390-1
  6. ^ Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child (1995) p. 99-100
  7. ^ Parrott, p. 158-9
  8. ^ Buber M (May 1957). "Guilt and guilt feelings". Psychiatry 20 (2): 114–29. PMID 13441838. 
  9. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 409-10
  10. ^ Fenichelp. 496
  11. ^ Freud, p. 393
  12. ^ Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (Penguin 1976) p. 191
  13. ^ The Pursuit of Health, June Bingham & Norman Tamarkin, M.D., Walker Press)
  14. ^ Fenichel, p. 165 and p. 293
  15. ^ Fritz Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (1974) p. 246
  16. ^ Morten Birket-Smith; Millon, Theodore; Erik Simonsen; Davis, Roger E. (2002). "11. Psychopathy and the Five-Factor Model of Personality, Widiger and Lynam". Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behavior. New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 173–7. ISBN 1-57230-864-8. 
  17. ^ Hare RD, Neumann CN (2005). "The PCL-R Assessment of Psychopathy: Development, Structural Properties, and New Directions". In Patrick CJ. Handbook of Psychopathy. New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 58–88. ISBN 1-59385-212-6. 
  18. ^ Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (Penguin 1976) p. 240
  19. ^ Pallanti S, Quercioli L (August 2000). "Shame and psychopathology". CNS Spectr 5 (8): 28–43. PMID 18192938. 
  20. ^ a b Branscombe, Nyla R.; Bertjan Doosje (2004). Collective Guilt: International Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521520835. 
  21. ^ Owen J (1850). "Chapter 8". The Doctrine of Justification by Faith. London: Johnstone and Hunter. pp. 197. 
  22. ^ Parrott, p. 152-3
  23. ^ see cognitive therapy under Cognitive therapy
  24. ^ E. R. Smith/D. M. Mackie, Social Psychology (2007) p. 527-8
  25. ^ Fenichel, p. 502

Further reading

External links

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  • Guilt — «Guilt» …   Википедия

  • guilt — n [Old English gylt delinquency]: the fact of having committed an offense esp. against the law not enough evidence to establish guilt compare innocence Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam Webster. 1996 …   Law dictionary

  • guilt — [ gılt ] noun uncount ** 1. ) a feeling of being ashamed and sorry because you have done something wrong: Instead of satisfaction she felt only guilt. twinge/pang of guilt: She felt a sudden twinge of guilt. guilt about/at/for/over: I often felt… …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • Guilt — (g[i^]lt), n. [OE. gilt, gult, AS. gylt, crime; probably originally signifying, the fine or mulct paid for an offence, and afterward the offense itself, and akin to AS. gieldan to pay, E. yield. See {Yield}, v. t.] 1. The criminality and… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • guilt — guilt; guilt·i·ly; guilt·i·ness; guilt·less; guilt·less·ly; guilt·less·ness; …   English syllables

  • guilt´i|ly — guilt|y «GIHL tee», adjective, guilt|i|er, guilt|i|est. 1. having done wrong; deserving to be blamed and punished: »The jury pronounced the prisoner guilty of murder. SYNONYM(S): culpabl …   Useful english dictionary

  • guilt|y — «GIHL tee», adjective, guilt|i|er, guilt|i|est. 1. having done wrong; deserving to be blamed and punished: »The jury pronounced the prisoner guilty of murder. SYNONYM(S): culpabl …   Useful english dictionary

  • guilt — gilt n feelings of culpability esp. for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy: morbid self reproach often manifest in marked preoccupation with the moral correctness of one s behavior <aggressive responses originating in inner guilt… …   Medical dictionary

  • guilt — [gilt] n. [ME gilt < OE gylt, a sin, offense] 1. the state of having done a wrong or committed an offense; culpability, legal or ethical 2. a painful feeling of self reproach resulting from a belief that one has done something wrong or immoral …   English World dictionary

  • guilt — *blame, culpability, fault Analogous words: sin, crime, *offense: responsibility, answerability, liability (see corresponding adjectives at RESPONSIBLE) Antonyms: innocence: guiltlessness …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • guilt — [n] blame; bad conscience over responsibility answerability, blameworthiness, contrition, crime, criminality, culpability, delinquency, dereliction, disgrace, dishonor, error, failing, fault, indiscretion, infamy, iniquity, lapse, liability,… …   New thesaurus

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