Is Guilt Good for You?

ByABC News
January 16, 2003, 7:47 PM

Jan. 17 -- 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.