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An emotional state produced by thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self and could have done otherwise.

Guilt is both a cognitive and an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes that he or she has violated a moral standard and is responsible for that violation. A guilty conscience results from thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self. Guilt feelings may also inhibit us from falling short of our ideal again in the future. Individual guilt is an inner reflection on personal wrongdoing, while collective guilt is a shared state resulting from group—such as corporate, national, or community—wrongdoing.


The researcher M. L. Hoffman has proposed the following stages of guilt development:

Infancy—Because infants have no clear sense of separate identity or the effect of their behavior on others, it would be impossible for them to feel true guilt over hurting another.

Early childhood—Young children understand themselves as physically separate from others, but do not yet have a deep understanding of others' inner states; therefore, they feel guilt over hurting another person physically, but not over doing emotional damage.

Middle childhood—With the increased understanding of others' inner states, children develop a sense of guilt over inflicting emotional pain on others or failing to act on another's behalf.

Adolescence to adulthood—Cognitive development now allows the young adult to perceive abstract, universal concepts of identity and suffering and, therefore, to feel a sense of guilt over more general harm, such as world hunger, poverty, oppression, etc.

Guilt serves as both an indicator and inhibitor of wrongdoing. Healthy guilt is an appropriate response to harming another and is resolved through atonement, such as making amends, apologizing, or accepting punishment. Unhealthy guilt, sometimes called neurotic or debilitating guilt, is a pervasive sense of responsibility for others' pain that is not resolved, despite efforts to atone. Healthy guilt inspires a person to behave in the best interests of him-or herself and others and make amends when any wrong is done. Unhealthy guilt stifles a person's natural expression of self and prohibits intimacy with others.

Unhealthy guilt can be instilled when a child is continually barraged with shaming statements that criticize the child's self, rather than focusing on the specific harmful behavior. A statement such as, "It is wrong to take someone else's things without permission—please return my book," creates an appropriate awareness in the child of healthy guilt for doing wrong. Saying, "Give me my book back! I can't trust you with anything!" shames the child, declaring that he or she is by nature untrustworthy and will never be better than a thief, regardless of future behavior. Consequently, the child sees his or her identity as defective, and may feel powerless to atone for any wrongdoings. This identity can be carried into adulthood, creating a sense of debilitating guilt.

An important difference between shame and guilt is that in the former, a person does not feel he could have avoided the action; in guilt, he feels responsible. Guilt can be used to manipulate someone into behaving in a certain way. This is known as a "guilt trip." Provoking another's sense of guilt in order to obtain something that he or she might not otherwise have offered is a manipulation of internal motivations. If a woman tells her husband that she is going out for the evening with her girl-friends, and her husband responds, "Go ahead and go to the movie, dear … don't worry about me … I'll be fine here all by myself in this big old house all evening with nothing to do …, " the wife will be made to feel guilty for her husband's loneliness. If the guilt trip is heavy, the wife may decide to stay home with the husband, even though she really wants to go to the movie.

It is appropriate to let people know when they have unnecessarily or intentionally hurt others, or have ignored their responsibilities to others. This will instill fair guilt that will help a person be less hurtful in the future.

Although conclusive studies have yet to be conducted, it is likely that the sense of guilt changes along with a person's cognitive and social development. These stages have yet to be thoroughly documented and are still open to critique.

Guilt can be deactivated, the conscience "turned off." Some people never seem to develop a healthy sense of guilt in the first place, through a failure to develop empathy or a lack of appropriate limits, while others choose to turn theirs off. Guilt can be deactivated in two different ways:

1) The person convinces him-or herself that the act was not a violation of what is right.

2) The person reasons that he or she has no control over the events of life and is therefore not responsible for the outcome. With no sense of personal responsibility, there can be no sense of guilt.

When guilt is reduced, internal limits on behavior disappear and people can act without remorse.

See also Moral development; Self-conscious emotions

Dianne K. Daeg de Mott

Further Reading

Greenspan, P.S. Practical Guilt: Moral Dilemmas, Emotions, and Social Norms. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Hoffman, M. L. "Development of Prosocial Motivation: Empathy and Guilt." In The Development of Prosocial Behavior, edited by N. Eisenberg, pp. 218-31. New York: Academic Press, 1982.

Kurtines, William M., and Jacob L. Gewirtz, eds. Moral Development: An Introduction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.

Middleton-Moz, Jane. Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1990.

Wechsler, Harlan J. What's So Bad About Guilt? Learning to Live With It Since We Can't Live Without It. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Kenneth John William Craik Biography to Jami (Mulla Nuruddin ʼAbdurrahman ibn-Ahmad Biography