Psychologists define guilt as a feeling of responsibility or remorse for having committed a wrong.

Guilt is an emotion, often defined as the feeling that one has done something wrong. Shame, by contrast, is the feeling that one is wrong. Guilt is typically assigned to acts for which people feel remorse, acts they perform and which their internal moral code will not accept. Psychological guilt is an internal state, for which there is no one explanation.

Three men participate in an art therapy session at a center for patients with Alzheimer's disease.

Three men participate in an art therapy session at a center for patients with Alzheimer's disease.
(© Durand Florence/SIPA/newscom)

Cognitive theorists believe that guilt is an emotion people feel when they believe they have harmed someone. In cognitive theory, thoughts create feelings. Therefore, the belief of having caused harm is sufficient to feel guilt. The guilt of emotion follows directly from the thought (often misguided) that one is responsible for someone else's misfortune. People who feel chronically guilty, according to cognitive psychologists, often hold a mistaken belief that they have harmed others. Cognitive therapy treatment necessitates teaching people to rid themselves of the automatic thought that they have caused others to suffer. People constantly plagued by guilt are taught to recognize and challenge the truth of their mental processes, such as catastrophizing (making the worst of a bad situation) or overgeneralizing (believing one bad act leads to many more worse events).

Survivor guilt is a neurotic form of guilt related to mental distress. Professionals who have worked with combat veterans or children of Holocaust survivors have observed this type of guilt. Survivor guilt also occurs when people lose families, friends, or neighbors in disasters but survive themselves. Survivor guilt can haunt children who make a better life for themselves than their family or friends. First-generation college students are often conflicted about their success in school and the opportunities they are given. Students may feel guilty that they have opportunities that their parents or siblings did not. To stay close to family members, people with survivor guilt may sabotage their personal goals of financial success, making a family, or school.

Guilt serves as both an indicator and inhibitor of wrongdoing. Healthy guilt is an appropriate response to harming someone and is resolved through apologizing or accepting punishment. Unhealthy guilt, sometimes called neurotic or debilitating guilt, is a pervasive sense of responsibility for others' pain that is not resolved. Healthy guilt inspires individuals to behave in the best interests of themselves and others and to make amends when wrong is done. Unhealthy guilt stifles individuals' natural expression of self and prohibits intimacy with others. Guilt can also be used to manipulate someone into behaving in a certain way.

Guilt can be deactivated, the conscience “turned off” . Some people never develop a healthy sense of guilt, through a failure to develop empathy or a lack of appropriate limits (sociopaths), whereas others choose to turn theirs off. Guilt can be deactivated in two different ways: individuals convince themselves that the act was not a violation of what is right; or individuals reason that they have no control over the events of life and are, therefore, not responsible for the outcome. With no sense of personal responsibility, there can be no sense of guilt. When guilt disappears, internal limits on behavior disappear and people can act without remorse. This is a dangerous state and can lead to situations in which individuals perform acts of atrocity, claiming that they had no choice but to follow orders.

See also Cognitive therapy ; Erikson, Erik; Freud, Sigmund; Moral development ; Self-conscious emotions .



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Hoffman, M. L. “Development of Prosocial Motivation: Empathy and Guilt.” In The Development of Prosocial Behavior, edited by N. Eisenberg, pp. 218–31. New York: Academic Press, 1982.

Kurtines, William M., and Jacob L. Gewirtz, eds. Moral Development: An Introduction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.

Middleton-Moz, Jane. Shame and Guilt: Masters ofDisguise. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1990.


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