Guilt: A Double-Edged Sword

New research finds when we make amends to assuage our guilt, a third party often pays the price.
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New research finds when we make amends to assuage our guilt, a third party often pays the price.

The English dramatist Nicholas Rowe famously declared, “Guilt is the source of sorrow, 'tis the fiend, th' avenging fiend, that follows us behind, with whips and stings.”

What he failed to mention is those guilt-induced lashes sometimes strike someone else’s back rather than our own.

Newly published research from the Netherlands finds that while guilt can be a positive behavioral catalyst in one-on-one relationships, its consequences are more complicated when three or more people are involved. Motivated to compensate someone we have wronged but unwilling to pay a personal penalty, we often end up simply shifting the pain to a third party.

“Our experiments demonstrate that guilt motivates compensatory behavior toward the people to whom a person feels guilty, but that this occurs at the expense of others in the social environment,” a research team led by Ilona de Hooge of Erasmus University writes in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers report guilt “can lead to such a preoccupation with repairing the harm done to the victim that it makes people temporarily forget the well-being of others in their social surroundings.” As a result of this temporary moral blindness, “guilt repairs the hurt relationship at the expense of others, and not — or hardly — at the expense of oneself.”

De Hooge and her colleagues conducted a series of studies, beginning with a small-scale one featuring 33 residents of the city of Tilburg. They were first asked to describe either “a personal experience of feeling guilty” or “a regular weekday.” Those in the first group were then instructed to think about the individuals they felt guilty toward; those in the second thought about someone they met on that inconsequential day.

Each participant was then asked to divide 50 Euros between three uses: A birthday present for the person in question, a charity for victims of a flood in Africa and themselves.

Not surprisingly, those who were feeling guilty offered more money to the individual they had earlier singled out. However, “At the same time, guilty participants offered less money to flood victims,” the researchers note. Members of the two groups “did not differ in the amount they kept for themselves.”

The researchers performed additional experiments introducing different variables into this basic equation, but they always found the guilty person shifted the cost of reparation to a third party. This suggests the process of making amends “can produce new victims when one attempts to restore the relationship with the original victim,” they write.

So, in terms of morality, it appears guilt is something of a double-edged sword: While it "inhibits selfish tendencies in favor of behaviors that benefit people who have been wronged," it doesn’t negate our penchant to keep our self-interest front and center.

So the next time you feel contrite, consider precisely how you plan to make amends, and take note of who will ultimately pay the price for your transgression. Chances are excellent it isn’t you.