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What is guilt and what is it's purpose?

I threw this into Google because my thoughts on it are a mess that I cannot condense into a few statements, so this is what I found from Wikipedia.

Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes—accurately or not—that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a moral standard, and bears significant responsibility for that violation.

I chose this one because most of the other definitions seem to circle around this one.
Firstly I do not believe in moral absolutes, but that we collectively shape what societal norms are and aren't. I for the most part, try to make most of the decisions in my life based on reason and logic and try to separate emotion as much as I possibly can.

But here's my pickle and why I disagree with the above definition of guilt. I sometimes find myself reflecting on decisions/actions I made in the past and"feel bad" about them, not because those actions/feeling weren't in accord with my perception of rights and wrongs, but rather because it was poorly executed. For example if I tell a lie today and get caught tomorrow, days or weeks later I feel guilty, but not because I think lying is wrong, but because it was a bad lie and i got caught. If I had successfully gotten away with that lie, then I wouldn't be feeling this right now.

So basically what i want to know is whether guilt is socially constructed to cater to peoples moral code of conduct or does it have an evolutionary purpose? Though to consider the latter, we would have to create a more definitive explanation.

I'm sorry I'll stop here, I'm new to the site.

  • Sep 13 2013: Guilt and regret are related and based on two illusions: first, that, given who we are, we could have and should have acted differently; and secondly, that had we acted differently things would be better. The best we can actually say is that my behavior was the result of my life to that point, and had I behaved differently, something would be changed. Guilt is not the same as responsibility. When we feel guilt, it is a good idea to step back and ask what our responsibility was/is. If I can look at my choices and actions and see that something I have done or not done has caused harm, then I can act to address that harm, through apology or restitution or accepting the consequences. If I get stuck in guilt, then my focus is on me, not the problem or the harm to others; and my resolution of the guilt will also focus on me.
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      Sep 13 2013: Oh....good point David....if I get stuck in the feeling of guilt, my focus is on me, not the problem or the harm to others; and resolution of the guilt will also focus on me.....good point!

      I agree that how we behave is the result of our life experiences up to that point in time. I also agree that guilt is not the same as responsibility. If we take responsibility for our words/actions, however, there doesn't seem to be a reason to get stuck in the feeling of guilt. As you's important to step back and ask what our responsibility was/is.
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    Sep 13 2013: Here is a good way to start your search:
    Perhaps you are describing shame, not guilt.

    My own analysis is quite close to yours.
    I see the shame/guilt thing played-out in the social domain in a thing we call "morality"
    Morality seems to be attached to the choices we make - and those choices are measured by who benefits (or not) by those choices.
    At any given time, the zone of morality will include some agreement of which balance of for-me/for-my-community is acceptable. And morals change dramatically from time to time.
    For instance, Western culture is being pushed to recognise no community benefit when choosing individual actions (Greed is good).

    I believe the difference between guilt and shame is whether it concerns your own actions (guilt) or the actions of others towards you (Shame).
    Keep in mind that these are objects of perception, and may be; past or future, real or imagined.

    Either way - there is a very well documented process that goes on in the brain with these emotions. The amygdala-to-prefrontal-cortex interplay is easily shown. Interesting that this dynamic is also related to behavioural "modulation" .. I got to learn that when dealing with my Autistic son - autism is often a problem of modulation.
    However, the thing is not easily understood and includes a lot of subtle nuances in just how much modulation is the difference between an autistic mind-storm, to emotional outburst, to balanced reaction, to repression, to chronic depression.

    The issues of guilt and shame seem to originate in the autobiographical self - it deals with inter-personal risk - and forecasts of those risks. This includes self-image and image of others - these images may be skewed or corrupted by trauma, early childhood abuse or persistent environmental stresses.
    • Sep 13 2013: Hey Mitch I appreciate your response and link. Now that you mention it, I think it is close to shame that it is guilt.

      I completely agree with you there, and its the reason why I asked if guilt is just a social construct, because as Robert (comment below) pointed out, it is not always to do with conflicting with your core belief, it can also be used as a tool . All the examples I can think of, where someone is genuinely guilty are attached to a social norm. If you go to a different culture, someone performing the same action will not give them any guilt.

      I will try to look into how it is manifested during our early developmental stages. Thanks again.
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        Sep 13 2013: Hi Andrew,

        I think that it is not a "construct" as if someone built it.
        I think it's just what happens to social animals - it just forms all by itself - same as you don't choose to have fingernails or hair..

        Humans are total fringe-dwellers. So much energy just to survive - bacteria are far more plentiful than us, and they don't even have brains. But we have this extra property of being the least adapted and most adaptable creature ever seen.
        We do this through our social excellence - so morality for a human is far more powerful than morality for a cow.

        But there's an important by-product. .. I call it "harm".

        When you harm most animals, they just die - but humans, through their social power, keep each other alive even when the harm is great.
        This is a problem - because harm will stay in the society until it is fully healed - it will propagate from human-to-human through our big empathy channels, and it will propagate from parent to child through abuse - until it is healed.

        We have become the storehouse for immense amounts of un-healed harm.

        I think this is the big crisis right now. If we do not realise that harm is equal to "debt" we will not get the tools to heal it - and that is not good for us.

        We have been near extinction a few times with bad ice-ages, and I think we have not really recovered from the last one.

        Healing is the key.
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    Sep 13 2013: Mwaso, Guilt is the biggest tool in my late mothers bag of tricks. She could make you feel it was your fault that Caesar was stabbed. For weeks I would be angry that I did not stop Brutus.

    When she made a suggestion it was a rock hard demand .. failure was not a option. Her disappointment was told in the 100 hours of labor pains in delivery she suffered because she loved you and now you do this ..... to me.

    Forget the dictionary .... you should have known my mom.
    • Sep 15 2013: My mom has her black belt in guilt as well!
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    Sep 13 2013: As you write Andrew, guilt can be an emotional experience for a person when s/he realizes/believes, accurately or not, that s/he has compromised his/her standards of conduct, and bears significant responsibility. As defined, it is also..."feelings of culpability esp. for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy".

    It has already been mentioned on this thread that some people use guilt as a tool, and I perceive that it can be used as a tool to try to control another person. For example, I was told as a child, that I was born a sinner, because that was a belief in the religion I was born into. This idea plants a seed that a person is inadequate when they are born! We were born with a feeling of guilt for something we did not do? I don't think so, and yet we are told that we need to carry that guilty feeling our entire lives while we are trying, trying, trying to be a better person!

    You say you " sometimes find myself reflecting on decisions/actions I made in the past and"feel bad" about them".

    It seems like a natural human feeling to have shame or guilt when we do something that is not in tune with the moral standards we were taught, or those we create for ourselves. Reflecting, taking responsibility and learning from the experience feels natural to me.

    In my perception, once we take responsibility, reflect, and learn, there is no need to hold onto guilt and shame any longer. We certainly can revisit and ponder the situation for the purpose of learning....however... what purpose or good can come from always believing that we are inadequate? Once we have taken responsibility and learned from the experience, I see no reason to hold onto guilt and shame.

    Welcome to TED conversations Andrew:>)
    • Sep 13 2013: Thank you Colleen.

      I like your addition to the definition, it helps it account for some areas that the original definition didn't cover.

      I wonder though, is guilt shame a necessity? Don't get me wrong, we use it as a tool to identify what behaviors we need to change in our lives (depending on your perception of what should be right) but, as Mitch mentioned below, there are other methods we can use to so the same. Some possibly even better, because as you said, "what purpose or good can come from always believing that we are inadequate? Once we have taken responsibility and learned from the experience, I see no reason to hold onto guilt and shame. "

      I wonder if guilt and shame feel natural because you grew up around them, we develop an automatic response to situations that usually evoke these emotions.
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        Sep 13 2013: Is guilt/shame a necessity? Hmmmmmmm............good question Andrew!

        It seems, that if we want to be compassionate, we need to feel how and why our words and actions may have impacted another person? If we want to take responsibility for our words and actions, we need to understand the ramifications?

        As you insightfully recognize...we can use it as a tool to identify what behaviors we need to change in our lives. I would not deny myself that opportunity, so whether or not it is a necessity, I would choose to feel it for the purpose of learning.

        I believe it is beneficial to experience all feelings and emotions, and I don't think we have to hold onto those feelings/emotions once we have learned from them. There are always more levels of learning to experience, and we can revisit the feelings at any time for the purpose of learning.
  • Sep 13 2013: I think you have a good topic here; its probably been discussed before I knew of TED.

    If I understand your articulation here, your definition is self serving, all about what you understand and what you can achieve in perfection. If you haven't behaved to your satisfaction you feel guilty because you disappointed yourself. Am I hearing you correctly?

    Being aware of what you feel is good or bad behavior (or performance) is part of life. Guilt could be feeling bad about something that hurt someone, but guilt must not control one's life. There is far more positive enthusiasm for success and feeling good about helping humankind available to persons to replace feeling guilty. Guilt is far more useful to assess one's relationships with people (or pets) when some wrong is done than to let it control life. Guilt can be a tool for seeing the "better way" and then letting wisdom prevail in making better choices. No one is perfect; sooner or later we will hurt someone, maybe not intentionally, but forgiveness in response to a wrong can be a mighty healer!!! It can dissolve guilt and a person can rise to new confidence of worth. Continuing guilt can be damaging and hanging onto guilt can destroy relationships.

    On the other hand anyone who holds a person in a guilt feeling is controlling and that must be corrected or the relationship abandoned.

    All said, my take is that guilt involves relationships, not just self. It is better to give than to receive and giving a person release from guilt is mighty and satisfying. Releasing self from guilt by choosing the better ways of life, even after mistakes, is soul satisfying, among other things.
    • Sep 13 2013: Thanks for the response Mark, and yes you understood i correctly.

      I agree with you that the definition should include relationships. Your explanation is the reason why I asked at the end whether, guilt is a social construct or has evolutionary purpose because, going with that you said, it would benefit humanity by increasing empathy and socialization. If that same perspective was applied to humanity hundreds of years ago, we would have a completely different history.
      Is that because we were still in the process of evolving this trait, or did we along the line social construct guilt, to further humanity?
  • Sep 15 2013: I feel guilt when I fail or remember my failures. I use the feeling to learn and make sure I never make the same mistake again. If I fail I want to be sure that it was not due to anything I could have done or not done.
  • Sep 15 2013: Great conversation! Many great points below and perspectives. I provide the following:

    1) I do not think guilt is a quality metric for execution of a decision, unless the decision has breached some moral boundary you have set for yourself.

    2) I think guilt is an emotion based control method (as Colleen mentioned). It's power is proportional to the respect you have for the person whose moral principals are being compromised, including yourself. I think this power is also proportional to the number of persons you respect holding a similar view. When this number starts reflecting a consensus, then it becomes a socially constructed moral code of conduct. I think these will vary and depend on the groups you associate with (ie. politicians, doctors, priests, family, sports teams, co-workers, addicts, etc.) as Mitch Smith mentioned below.

    3) I agree with Mr. Kurtz's comment about it being sort of useful in a relationship. It is sort of an empathy feedback mechanism when assessing the emotional impact of your actions on someone you care about. Here again, it is proportional to the strength of the relationship and number of people involved, whether it is guild about saying something hurtful to a loved on or guilt about some treasonous act against a nation.

    4) Mr. Hopcroft's point about making the choice that seems right at the time is on the mark as well. When stimulated somehow, our decisions about how to respond and the amount of energy put into a response is largely based on the sum of our experiences to that point. An optimal response is rarely defined. The measure of personal accountability should be based on the your ability to make the best decision, the soundness of your reasoning for making the decision, and the motives behind the decision. If your intentions were good, your reasoning sound, and the energy in your execution appropriate, then learn from any mistakes. If not, then try and appropriately address the harm, learn from the experience, and move on.
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    Sep 14 2013: the culpability always exist even you're using your logic like perfect way to live with it in your life ,and your culpability come if you wanna change it like resistance from your unconscious,*the way explain the goal ,the culbality give you a sensation that you will become weak without the purely logic way ,there is another complex *self-destruction ,if this two factors find in same person ,you can risk your life for an idea only and you maybe find the way at least that the EQ it's too intereting like IQ ,and the best way is to teach our conscious about the unconscious,to have some tolerence to the truth like flexibility into our excess of culbability it's dangerous more to our understanding for this life....modesty is needed always to fight the intolerence to the perfect*everyone can be perfect if he don't believe on it ,when we don't forget* how much time the mistaken creatures by our nature we are.
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    Sep 13 2013: Just telling a lie today and get caught tomorrow, does not generate a guilt feeling.
    But instead when someone else is harmed a feeling of guilt surfaces. Say your lie only hurt your reputation, you like feel embarrassment or regret, but not guilt.

    Let’s you pick up a rock on a path and toss into some brush. And you then find out you kit a nest of baby ducks, likely you will feel guilt. Even through there was no intent to harm. But instead let’s say you hit a cat, you may or may not feel guilt depending on your moral standards. So say the definitions seem correct.

    To me the purpose of guilt is to motivate us into action to help/correct the harm we have done. And if we try to hide our actions, shame is the likely motivator.

    P.S. Welcome to the site.
  • Sep 13 2013: Guilt is a teacher....that teaches you about yourself. Follow it. Understand it......ONLY in yourself. Do not worry about others or policies or generalizations surrounding guilt. Examine it. See it. Forgiveness arises from this Understanding.
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    Sep 13 2013: What you are talking about boils down to agreements.

    Morality is cultural agreement. E.G. if you are a sucide bomber it would be immoral to not kill.

    Ethics is agreement with yourself. E.G. if you enter into a contract with someone you know in your gut is going to be trouble would be a transgression to yourself. How many times have you heard someone say "I knew I shouldn't have..."

    If you only care "if you get caught" is amoral. This is indicative that you are a punk or a sociopath
    • Sep 13 2013: Pat thanks for the response.

      I agree with the fact that ethics is agreement with yourself, but I disagree with your example because we all have doubt before we make most of our decisions, so if I make that contract I will think something bad might happened, and if it does, I will say, "I knew I shouldn't have..." But on the other hand, if it ends up favorable for me, then I wont be in conflict with myself and say, "I know I won but I should have....instead."

      To say I am immoral with my reaction is to assume I subscribe to the same moral code that is judging me, because in a different culture it would be a different reaction.

      I took a little offense to you inferring that I might be a punk but I get what you're tying to say. I didnt have time to completely explain that these are not the only things I feel guilty about in life. But to say those examples are indicative or a sociopath is reaching isn't it? Your assuming every individual prescribes to the same morality, which you defined as a cultural agreement.
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        Sep 13 2013: Re the first paragraph, ethics is regarding decisions you make about what you do know. Not the least of which is finding out what you don't know.

        Re the second paragraph moral by definition applies to the group

        Re the third paragraph the only things that will really bother you are the transgressions to yourself. The reason a criminal has trouble is a lack of self respect. Which comes from the transgressions he committed on himself
        • Sep 13 2013: Could you please explain your first response a bit more?

          And I agree that moral applies to the group, but there are several groups are there not? Several nations scattered through the wold, each with differences in their understanding in what are the right and wrong morals no?
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        Sep 13 2013: Yes a moral is peculiar to a group.
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    Sep 13 2013: People have two selves in their heart. I think some people will lose their kind self if they fail to do self-examination and indulge themselves in immoral behaviors with the excuse of bad luck or powerlessness. I think this shouldn't be encouraged or tolerated. But when the guilty people repent their wrong-doings and show sincerity to compensate, we should be ready to help them to revert to good deeds. Otherwise, they may take the advantage of people's mercy and tolerance and double their fault.
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    Sep 13 2013:

    My answers:

    (1) “Guilt” is a person thinks he/she has violated the morality.
    . Morality is the rule of symbiosis in our DNA.
    . Symbiosis is necessary for keeping his/her own DNA alive.
    (2) So, “Guilt” does “have an evolutionary purpose”.
    . That is to keep our DNA alive.
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    Sep 13 2013: " For example if I tell a lie today and get caught tomorrow, days or weeks later I feel guilty, but not because I think lying is wrong, but because it was a bad lie and i got caught. If I had successfully gotten away with that lie, then I wouldn't be feeling this right now."

    So I think the problem is why people now don't feel guilty even if they have done some bad things?I think if people can repent what they have done wrong , they are kind and help to make our society more beautiful and harmonious.