6.9.12 Guilt
Breaking the rules
Guilt as an emotion is the feeling we get when we believe we have committed an offence by breaking a rule or law. This may be a criminal law or just a social norm.
Guilty feelings are due to the cognitive dissonance that arises from the gap between our self- image as good, law-abiding citizens and the evidence of our actions.
How guilty we feel depends on how seriously we consider the offence to be. If I drive a little over the speed limit, I do not feel very guilty at all. If, however I hit a pedestrian then I feel terrible.
Guilt is also related to expected punishment. If I see a police car whilst I am driving fast, I may feel more guilty.
Remorse, which is wishing that we had not committed the offence, is similar to guilt and often accompanies it.
Effects of evidence
We feel guilty when we know we are breaking a rule and think further about it. This is one reason why there are regular speed limit signs within restricted areas. Whenever I see a sign, I feel guilty and am more inclined to slow down.
Guilt drives actions to reduce the feelings of guilt and also reduce the chance of being found out by others. For example, we may:
    • Stop committing the offence.
    • Make amends, for example by apologising.
    • Avoid situations that make us feel guilty.
People who have things that others do not often feel guilty about this (they may also fear the repercussions of the envy of the other people). Rich people may thus, for example, donate to charities or hide away in their mansions.
So what?
Guilt is used a lot by parents with their children ('What will your teacher say?'). Unsurprisingly, the children often pick it up and use it back again ('Everyone else has got one!').
Emotional blackmail is the common basic method in many relationship situations where guilt is used to persuade ('If you love me you'll...').
Lawyers also try to increase feelings of guilt to induce mistakes or a confession.