The Upside of Being Guilt-Prone

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A black and white Portuguese Water Dog with his head hung in shame
Photo: Julia Christe/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Something goes wrong at work and, in an instant, you’re reviewing your own contributions to the failed project, kicking yourself for all the ways you could’ve done better. You could’ve started earlier, worked harder, stayed later — what were you thinking? It’s all your fault.

Living with a guilt-prone mind is exhausting, in short. And yet, weirdly, the bulk of the psychological research points to some serious social perks of always feeling guilty, writes Christian Jarrett in a post at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, in that the guilt-prone tend to have better relationship skills than people who do not often feel guilty. Now, Jarrett writes, some new research starts to hint at why this might be: Guilty types are pretty great at reading other people’s emotions, as it turns out.

In the study, published in Cognition and Emotion, a team of Australian researchers first measured the guilt-prone tendency of 363 people, by presenting them with a variety of scenarios and asking them how they’d feel as a result. “For example, one involved making a big mistake on a work project,” Jarrett writes. “From the range of answers available, participants who said they’d think ‘I should have recognised the problem and done a better job’ were considered to have shown evidence of guilt-proneness.”

They then asked all of the study volunteers to take a test psychologists often use to measure emotional intelligence: Participants are shown a series of photographs of facial expressions and are asked to judge whether the person looks afraid, happy, sad, and so on. The results showed that the more guilt-prone the participants were, the better they did on the emotion-reading test. And the link does make a certain amount of sense. Emotional intelligence is all about promoting group harmony; likewise, a tendency to feel guilt signals that you’re concerned with taking responsibility for your actions, again, in order to keep up that group cohesion. In short: The feeling of feelings is a considerably complicated business.