Jan. 17, 2003 -- Today, many people regard guilt as an unnecessary, even harmful, emotion. Self-help authors have made careers offering advice on guilt-free living. But now psychologists argue that guilt has gotten a bum rap.
Guilt, psychologists like Suffolk University professor Jane Bybee say, is useful, because it gets people to regret the wrong they do, and correct it.
"They feel a sense of remorse over it. They wish that they could undo it. They feel, they ruminate over it," Bybee said.
Don't we all? Bybee says no. "One of the markers of a psychopath is that the person doesn't experience guilt at all," she said. Serial killer Ted Bundy, for example, said he felt no guilt after killing 28 people.
So we want people to feel guilt. And as parents, we want our kids to feel guilt — not just so they won't grow up to be psychopaths (after all, that risk is minute), but because guilt, say the experts, makes you less inclined to cheat, steal, or do drugs.
Research shows kids who have a little guilt are better citizens. "They're getting better grades in school, engaging in more volunteer work, they're less prone to racist attitudes," Bybee said.
Kathleen Vohs, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, said parents need to instill guilt in children, because kids are not born with it. She said, "Guilt is a wonderful thing for our society, because it keeps people in check."
"Guilt first seems to emerge in children about the age of 3," Vohs said, "because this is when they can start to see that their personal actions have consequences."
The Bunny Test
Bybee suggested we do our own experiment to see how guilt played a role in kids' decisions. We invited 5- and 6-year-old kids into a pre-school classroom and told them that a bunny in the room was hungry. We said there might be carrots in the room. The room was also filled with all sorts of toys. Would the kids play with the toys or would they look for the bunny's food? We'd been told the difference between those who look and those who play may come down to guilt.
Bybee says a child who feels guilt will feel responsible for the rabbit's hunger, and will make a real effort to find carrots. Most of the kids looked for carrots or food for the bunny, rather than playing with the toys. Some kids comforted the bunny. One little girl, Emily, practically ransacked the room looking for food.
Some might say Emily has a strong conscience or great compassion. Bybee concluded it was primarily guilt that inspired Emily's actions after listening to how she answered my questions.
A few of the kids did play with the toys. When I asked them why they didn't look for food, they said they were too busy playing.
Guilt As a Motivator
Eric Crescimano is a student at Case Western who says he doesn't feel much guilt.
He and other students at Case Western took a test which is supposed to measure guilt levels by asking questions like: "If a co-worker is blamed for a mistake you made, how likely are you to avoid the coworker or correct the situation?" Of those who took the test, Crescimano got one of the lowest guilt scores.
Student Sweety Patel scored highest. "I feel like I owe it to my parents and I owe it to whoever made any sacrifices to me, to always be doing something. If I'm not doing something I kinda feel guilty," Patel said.
We followed Crescimano and Patel around campus to see if there was a correlation between their guilt scores and what kind of students they were.
Patel was out the door, before 9 a.m., heading to her first class. She was finishing a second class at 10:30 when we came to find Crescimano, who was still sleeping.
Crescimano said wasn't usually out of bed by 10:30 in the morning. "If it were up to me," Crescimano said, "I wouldn't have a class before 4 p.m." He then took his time getting ready, and headed out for a leisurely lunch. His first class wasn't until afternoon.
Meanwhile Patel had dipped in and out of the library, and was off tutoring kids at a local elementary school.
Vohs said, "High-guilt people often do "shoulds" — 'I should do this, I ought to do that' — low-guilt people do "wants" — 'I want this, I want that.'"
In the afternoon, Patel studied. Crescimano, who says he has a B average, chilled out with his fraternity brothers.
"Life might be more fun with less guilt, absolutely, guilt is not a pleasant state, it really isn't, but in the end, it's better for everyone," Vohs said.
Crescimano, by the way, graduates from college this spring. He's taking his law school admission tests next month and hopes to go into entertainment law. Patel plans on going into the field of education and will be traveling to India this summer to tutor children in English.
Too Much of a 'Good' Thing
Since a little guilt is good, you would think a lot would be even better. But the experts say too much guilt — and not being able to get rid of it — is worse. It can be paralyzing.
Bad parenting can induce that kind of excess guilt. Bybee says relentless criticism of the child rather than the child's behavior creates bad guilt.
So how do you teach good guilt? If a child spills milk, Bybee says, instead of criticizing the child, say something like, "What a mess. What should we do about it?" Don't tell them what to do, she said, let them figure it out. They'll probably start cleaning it up. This helps kids to learn to feel guilt, but also to get past it.