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Explanations > Emotions > Guilt

Breaking the rules | Three types | Triggering guilt | Effects of evidence | So what


Breaking the rules

Guilt as an emotion is the feeling we get when we believe we have committed an offence by breaking a rule or law that we consider to be valid. This may be a criminal law, a social norm or, in particular, an internal values.

Guilty feelings are due to the cognitive dissonance that arises from the gap between our self-image as a law-abiding, good person and the evidence of our actions.

How guilty we feel depends on how seriously we consider the offence to be. If I drive a little over the speed limit, I do not feel very guilty at all. If, however I hit a pedestrian then I feel terrible.

Guilt is also related to expected punishment. If I see a police car whilst I am driving fast, I may feel more guilty.

It it different from shame, which focuses on the possible evaluation of other people. You need to think of other people to be ashamed. You only need yourself to feel guilty. It is also different from regret which need not knowingly violate a standard.

Three types

Reactive guilt

Reactive guilt is a response to an overt act of having violated one's own internal standards of acceptable behavior.

Anticipatory guilt

Anticipatory guilt occur where a person thinks about violating standards. it thus anticipates reactive guilt. This feeling may well then act to prevent the person from committing the sin.

Existential guilt

Existential guilt is experienced as a result of the awareness of a discrepancy between one's well-being and the well-being of others.

Triggering guilt

There are four ways that are commonly used to trigger guilt:

Statement of fact

A statement of fact tells an independent but difficult truth that may cause us to compare our values with our actions.

Last night, two million children went to bed hungry.

Statement of action

Ths reports personal behavior that should or should not occur. It tells the readers that they violated or will violate a standard through an act of either omission or commission. The hungry children example can be rewritten as a statement of action:

Last night as you slept sound, a child cried on the streets.


A suggestion recommends a future action or behavior, telling you that there is no excuse for not acting in this way.

You should donate money to help end hunger and save the children.


A question probes and prods deeper again, asking about your thoughts, feelings, or actions.

What have you done recently to help cold and hungry children.

Effects of evidence

We feel guilty when we know we are breaking a rule and think further about it. This is one reason why there are regular speed limit signs within restricted areas. Whenever I see a sign, I feel guilty and am more inclined to slow down.

Guilt drives actions to reduce the feelings of guilt and also reduce the chance of being found out by others. For example, we may:

  • Stop committing the offence.
  • Make amends, for example by apologizing.
  • Avoid situations that make us feel guilty.

So what?

Guilt is used a lot by parents with their children ('You know that is wrong.'). Unsurprisingly, the children often pick it up and use it back again ('You are causing me stress.').

Emotional blackmail is the common basic method in many relationship situations where guilt is used to persuade ('If you love me you'll...').

Lawyers also try to increase feelings of guilt to induce mistakes or a confession.

See also

The Seven Deadly Sins, Inferring about ourself


Huhmann, B.A. and Brotherton, T.P. (1997). A content analysis of guilt appeals in popular magazine advertisements. Journal of Advertising, Vol. 26, Issue 2

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