Schuldgevoel en subjectieve competentie : condities voor verandering van gedrag

K.L.P. De Soomer

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    In emotion theory, much attention has been given to guilt feelings as important emotions that play a significant role in interactions with the environment. Since Freud stressed the destructive influence of neurotic guilt feelings on the adaptive resources of the individual, ample attention has been given to these negative aspects in the psychological literature. It is important to emphasize that, according to this stand, guilt feelings have harmful effects on the intrapsychic dynamics of individuals and on their capacity to engage in interpersonal and social intercourse. In contrast, the potential positive impact of guilt feelings has been neglected in the history of psychology. Positive effects of guilt feelings are obviously not to be expected in the case of neurotic and unjustified guilt feelings. However, the negative evaluation of guilt may have obscured the functionality of guilt for adaptive behavioral change.

    In research on helping behavior, evidence has been found that moral transgression leads to greater compliance. According to Freedman (1970), the internal state that ties together the experimental findings, should be labeled as guilt. Guilt, the unpleasant emotion following neglected responsibility, can have positive effects for prosocial behavior. The research presented here elaborates on potential positive effects derived from guilt. Freedman draws attention to two major problems concerning guilt as an intervening variable: firstly guilt is a very rich, but somewhat vague concept, and secondly it is difficult to measure it directly. According to Freedman, various attempts to construct measures of guilt have been unsuccessful.

    In an attempt to overcome the latter difficulty, a new guilt scale was developed. In a preliminary phase, 30 subjects were interviewed on their belief s and feelings concerning situations that may arouse guilt feelings. On the basis of the data, 112 statements were formulated, indicating diverse aspects of guilt. In a later phase, these statements were presented to 188 subjects, using a five-point scale format. The data were condensed by way of factor analysis. The resulting guilt scale finally comprises 14 items. Factor one reflects a negative assessment of one's own functioning concerning both physical and psychological aspects. The second factor reflects the feelings of being rejected with reference to a negative evaluation of one's own behavior. Factor I refers to distress in a moral general sense. Factor II reflects the guilt element more specifically. In order to tackle the ambiguous content validity of the guilt concept, guilt was related tot the concept of (negative) subjective competence. Bowerman's (1978) subjective competence model provides a framework for assessing negative selfreferent  belief structures, indicating the degree to which the subject attributes unfavorable behavior to himself of herself. The self-referent belief structures represent attribution-sequences implying three qualitatively different attributions, namely: action-attribution, i.e. attributing an action to an actor; effectattribution, i.e. attributing an effect to an action; and affect-attribution, i.e. attributing a positive or a negative affect to an effect. Each attribution can have a more or less positive or negative value. The value of the attribution-sequence is defined by the product of the different attributions: (action-attribution) x (effect-attribution) x (affect-attribution) = subjective competence.

    Additionally to an analysis of personal feelings of responsibility in terms of concrete, identifiable actions, the subjective competence model provides a new instrument for measuring cognitive defensiveness. The theory distinguishes between primitive and complex defenses. Primitive defenses resemble defenses known as denial and stopping thinking, and seem to be less susceptible to change or influence. Complex defenses resemble justifications and rationalizations, and seem to be more susceptible to change and influence. Individuals with stronger negative subjective competence will demonstrate more complex defenses, which is considered to facilitate behavioral change. On the other hand, individuals with less negative subjective competence will demonstrate more primitive defenses, which is considered to hamper behavioral change. Negative subjective competence indicates the degree of responsibility a person may feel with regard to his defective behavior and unfavorable outcomes, which he attributes to himself as an actor. To the extent that the explanation of negative subjective competence does not take the concept of guilt into account, the explanation would be morally neutral. Whenever a person's responsibility is at stake, however, a moral explanation is involved. Therefore, both guilt and negative subjective competence were operationalized as intervening variables in a research design which was applied to two different kinds of risky health behavior, namely cigarette smoking and overeating.

    In an initial pilot study a tentative operationalization of the subjective competence theory was tested using 85 cigarette smokers. In a later stage a more elaborate research study was carried out with 270 cigarette smokers in order to test a research design in which anxiety, negative self esteem, and attributionstyle predict guilt feelings concerning smoking and negative subjective competence concerning smoking, both to be considered as intervening variables. Subsequently, a higher degree of guilt and negative subjective competence, together with situational determinants and population characteristics, predict the following dependent variables: a stronger intention to quit smoking, more complex and less primitive defenses, and less positive attitude towards smoking. The evidence corroborates the theory to a considerable extent, and the results obtained via path-analysis gave further support to the validity of the theoretical model.

    In addition, three different degrees of guilt feelings were induced experimentally in order to test a differential effect on the readiness to change risky health behavior. In the first instance, a hypothesis concerning a curvilinear effect on change scores was not corroborated. Yet, on the basis of further analysis, using Analysis of Variance, the data indicate that the degrees of guilt induction are indeed differentially effective in enhancing the intention to behavioral change and in optimizing the structure of cognitive defenses. In fact the differences concerning primitive and complex defenses were substantial in the condition in which the middle level of guilt was induced. On the basis of the empirical findings it is concluded that the degree to which induction of guilt might contribute to behavioral change is to be considered as a function of (a) the strength of the message, (b) the susceptibility of the receiver, and (c) characteristics of the person or institution being held responsible for the message.

    A similar research model was tested on the topic of overeating, using 64 subjects, partly obese and partly non-obese individuals. Negative subjective competence concerning three patterns of overeating — emotional eating, external eating, and non-restrained eating — could in an analogous fashion be predicted by anxiety, guilt and negative self-esteem. In correspondence with the previous study a higher degree of negative subjective competence predicts stronger intentions to change behavior, and similar defense structures. More guilt and more negative subjective competence clearly contribute to a much higher extent than do low guilt and low negative subjective competence to the intention to change risky health behavior. Subjects with more guilt and more negative subjective competence demonstrate a more differentiated defense system in comparison with subjects with low guilt and low negative subjective competence, who demonstrate more primitive defenses. Further research on this topic is recommended in order to investigate whether guilt feelings can be fruitfully utilized in the context of therapeutic and preventive manoeuvres, especially in the field of addiction, pertaining to smoking, eating disorders, alcoholism, and drugs abuse, or even more generally in different areas of unwanted behaviors, such as vandalism and antisocial behavior.

    In the final chapter an attempt is made to apply the theory to the process of socialization. Extreme high guilt feelings, and hypersensitivity for guilt, undoubtedly represent an unwanted outcome of the socialization process, because they may lead to alienation from the self. Extreme low guilt feelings, however, and hyposensitivity for guilt, should also be considered ineffective, because they may lead to alienation from social reality. A medium degree of guilt feelings and sensitivity for guilt will be the better outcome. In this study the theory has been operationalized with respect to two specific risky health behaviors. The findings seem to justify the expectation that the theoretical model can be applied to other behaviors as well. In this manner the presented research possibly may offer a contribution to the rediscovery of the unjustly neglected constructive function, which guilt feelings may have for behavioral change.

    Original languageDutch
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Defares, P.B., Promotor, External person
    Award date9 Apr 1986
    Place of PublicationWageningen
    Print ISBNs9789026507045
    Publication statusPublished - 1986


    • abnormal behaviour
    • kinship
    • ethics
    • tobacco
    • addiction
    • tobacco smoking
    • obesity
    • overweight
    • friendship

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