What is moral about moral emotions? Guilt elicits prosocial behavior as well as antisocial behavior

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

Research output: Contribution to journalAbstractAcademic


EXTENDED ABSTRACT Moral emotions have been portrayed as the social mortar of human societies because these feelings encourage us to put the concerns of others above our own and to engage in prosocial behavior. The hallmark moral emotion is guilt, which is typically described as an “adaptive emotion, benefiting individuals and their relationships in a variety of ways” (Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, p. 26). However, is it really the case that moral emotions make the interest of others paramount, neglecting our self-interest? Guilt mostly arises from a moral transgression in which the actor has violated an important norm and has hurt another person. This elicits a preoccupation with the victim and the ensuing reparative action tendencies are aimed at restoring the relationship between transgressor and victim. This victim-oriented focus explains the often-replicated finding that guilty people contribute more of their endowments to others in comparison to non-guilty people. It is clear that in dyadic situations guilt produces behavior that benefits others. However, we have reason to believe that the very characteristics of guilt that make it beneficial to the victim in dyadic interactions have disadvantageous side effects for others in the social environment. In dyadic interactions the costs of acting prosocially come necessarily at the expense of oneself. But in daily life it is also possible to act prosocially at the cost of others. We think that the generosity towards the victim has disadvantageous consequences for the social environment. Precisely because guilt induces a preoccupation with restoring the harm to the victim, it simultaneously causes a neglect of others. Consequently, a guilty state may not evoke a disregard for personal concerns (as is often assumed) but rather a depreciation of the concerns of non-victimized others. We predict that when taking such a broader, more ecologically valid perspective, it will appear that people experiencing guilt are motivated to benefit the relationship with the victim, but at the best possible outcomes for themselves. Three experiments investigated if the experience of guilt induces prosocial behavior towards the victim at the expense of others rather than the self. In Experiment 1, participants reported a personal experience of feeling guilty (Guilt condition), or described a regular weekday (Control condition). They were asked to think of the person they felt guilty towards (guilt condition) or of a person they had met during the weekday (control condition). This person was labeled Person A. Participants then divided ¤50 between the birthday of Person A, the fundraising of the victims of a flood, and themselves. We found that Guilt participants offered more money to Person A than Control participants. At the same time, guilt participants offered less money to flood victims than Control participants. Guilt and Control participants did not differ in the amount they kept for themselves. Experiment 2 explored whether guilty people could also act disadvantageously towards known others. Participants were randomly assigned to the Guilt or Control condition and read a scenario. Next, they divided ¤50 between the birthday of the victim of the scenario, the birthday of another friend, and themselves. Results showed that Guilt participants offered more money to the victim than Control participants, and offered less money to the third party. Participants did not differ in the amount they kept for themselves. Thus, even when the social surrounding consists of family and friends, the costs of compensatory behavior befall those other people rather than oneself. Experiment 3 tested our assumption that the preoccupation with the victim that characterizes guilt causes disadvantageous side effects for the social environment. This entails that no effects should be found in situations where the victim is not present, which was tested by adding a condition where the victim was not present. Participants were randomly assigned to the conditions of a 2 (Emotion condition: Guilt vs. Control) × 2 (Victim Presence: Victim-present vs. Victim-not-present) design. They were told that during the lab-session they could earn lottery tickets for a lottery. The session started with two rounds of a performance task, ostensibly with another participant. In the first round they could earn 8 lottery tickets for themselves, in the second round 8 tickets for the other player. After the first round, all participants received feedback that they earned the bonus. After the second round, the other player in the Guilt condition did not receive the bonus due to the participant’s bad performance. In the Control condition, the other player received the bonus. Participants continued with a three persondictator game, either with the player from the performance task (Victim-present condition) or with a participant who knew nothing about the performance task (Victim-not-present condition). In all conditions the third player was a participant who knew nothing about the letter task. As the dependent variable, the participant divided twelve lottery tickets among the three players. We found that participants in the Victim-present Guilt condition offered significantly more to the victim than participants in the Victim-present Control condition, and than participants in the Victim-not-present Guilt condition. They also offered significantly less to the third player than participants in the Victim-present Control condition, and than participants in the Victim-not-present Guilt condition. Higher offers to the victim did not come at personal expense: all conditions did not differ in tickets kept for oneself. In summary, it appears that guilt, the hallmark moral emotion, can motivate behaviors that do not fit the predicate moral. When people experience guilt, they are preoccupied with repairing the harm done to the victim, leading to disadvantageous effects for others in their social environment. This suggests that the view of moral emotions as (unconditionally) beneficial for others should be rephrased. Moral emotions do not make the interest of others in general paramount, but rather motivate a selective focus on the interests of the wronged other while not forgetting self-interest. This indicates that a thorough understanding of functioning of moral emotions is necessary to fully understand their influence on consumer behavior.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)715-715
JournalAdvances in Consumer Research
Publication statusPublished - 2010

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