Ever wonder why you feel guilty? Well, that's the question that psychologists have found the answer to.
Till now, the consensus on the reason for guilt has been split.
While one school of psychologists believe that guilt is "withdrawal motivation" meaning that it keeps people from repeating transgressive behaviour in the future, the other school believes that it is "approach motivation" i.e. it keeps it keeps people's behaviour in line with the moral standards of their community.
Now, New York University psychologists David M. Amodio, Patricia G. Devine, and Eddie Harmon-Jones conducting the new study have come to the conclusion that guilt is a combination of both - "withdrawal motivation" and "approach motivation".
The researchers believe that guilt is initially associated with withdrawal motivation, which then transforms into approach-motivated behaviour when an opportunity for reparation presents itself.
The researchers tested these questions about the functions of guilt in the context of reducing racial prejudice.
To test their theory, the researchers showed participants pictures of White, Black, or Asian faces. The participants' brain activities were monitored by ECG during this time.
The researchers then relayed randomised scores to the participants, telling them whether they responded positively or negatively to the White, Black, and Asian faces.
After receiving feedback indicating that they had responded negatively toward Black faces, the participants reported significantly increased guilt, anxiety, and sadness. The increase in guilt was larger than the change in any other emotion.
This increase was confirmed by the EEG, which showed significant reduction in left-sided frontal asymmetry following feedback.
A large body of literature contends that left-sided asymmetry corresponds to approach motivation. So, in this case, the participants were initially feeling the punitive effects of guilt, or withdrawal motivation.
The participants then completed another study in which they read a variety of magazine headlines. Interspersed among some filler headlines, were three titles pertaining to prejudice reduction ("Improving your interracial interactions," 10 ways to reduce prejudice in everyday life," and "Ways to eliminate your own racism in the new millennium").
he participants that were told they responded negatively toward black faces, revealed a large left-sided shift in frontal cortical activity while reading the prejudice-reduction titles, indicating approach motivation.
So, when subjects were given the opportunity for reparation, their feelings of guilt predicted their interest in prejudice-reducing behaviour. Previously emotions have been considered relatively unchanging, basic, feeling states.
These findings also suggest that although it feels bad, guilt plays a critical role in promoting prosocial changes in behaviour.
The new study appears in the June issue of Psychological Science, published by the Association for Psychological Science.