What is moral about guilt? Acting 'prosocially' at the disadvantage of others

I.E. de Hooge, R.M.A. Nelissen, S.M. Breugelmans, M. Zeelenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

151 Citations (Scopus)


For centuries economists and psychologists have argued that the morality of moral emotions lies in the fact that they stimulate prosocial behavior and benefit others in a person’s social environment. Many studies have shown that guilt, arguably the most exemplary moral emotion, indeed motivates prosocial behavior in dyadic social dilemma situations. When multiple persons are involved, however, the moral and prosocial nature of this emotion can be questioned. The present article shows how guilt can have beneficial effects for the victim of one’s actions but also disadvantageous effects for other people in the social environment. A series of experiments, with various emotion inductions and dependent measures, all reveal that guilt motivates prosocial behavior toward the victim at the expense of others around—but not at the expense of oneself. These findings illustrate that a thorough understanding of the functioning of emotions is necessary to understand their moral nature. Keywords: moral emotions, guilt, interpersonal relationships, prosocial behavior, social dilemmas
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)462-473
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • empathy-induced altruism
  • decision-making
  • shame
  • emotions
  • dilemma
  • anger
  • embarrassment
  • perspective
  • fairness
  • behavior


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