Guilt proneness is the subject of an article just published in Current Directions in Psychological Science. The guilt proneness scale has some correlations with the Big Five and the HEXACO scales so it is of interest in the temperament world
There are a few nice surprises about this. One is that it seems to be a pretty healthy characteristic. It is defined as “a personality trait indicative of a predisposition to experience negative feelings about personal wrongdoing, even when the wrongdoing is private.”* Fascinatingly, it is measured by a scale with the acronym GASP. Here you have to imagine yourself in a series of four situations in which you have done something morally wrong, and then rate how likely you would be to experience a sense of guilt on a scale of 1 to 7 (guilt as defined above, where nobody will ever know but you). A maximal score of 28 is possible, with 20 or less suggesting low guilt-proneness, 21-24, medium proneness and 25-28, high guilt proneness.
One of the very interesting findings is that it has good correlations with the Honesty/Humility scale of the HEXACO–the six factor personality test that parallels the Big Five. (See previous blogs for more information on the HEXACO). These correlations average about .50. It also correlates with two Big Five factors–Agreeableness and Conscientiousness at slightly lesser values of .30 to .40. Taken together, since both HEXACO and the Big Five assume their traits are very substantially genetic, this suggests that guilt-proneness as a sub-trait also has a genetic basis. Perhaps surprisingly, the remaining Big Five factors– Extraversion, Stability-Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience show little or no correlation with guilt-proneness, and the lessor traits of self-esteem and rumination are unrelated. Rumination, in particular, (which is a term borrowed from the process in which cattle digest and redigest their food, is a decidedly unhealthy need to go over and over situations and feelings that are distressing. The person’s mind plays like a broken record, endlessly reviewing past mistakes or injustices, and possible causes, without ever reaching a solution. One might think that the guilt prone might ruminate.
So what is surprising about all this? Comment on this if you think I have it wrong, but I would guess that our general all-American assessment of someone who frequently feels guilty about small transgressions that no one else knows about–would be that they are rather anxiety-ridden, (hence at least somewhat neurotic), probably do ruminate about past mistakes, and generally are on the wussy side! In thinking about this, it is important also to distinguish guilt from shame. In a shame situation, others either know about what you have done or very likely will come to know about it. In that situation, there is a reasonable fear of disapproval, of having others who matter see you as a bad person, and perhaps even shun you. Guilt, however, is simply between you, your personal values and your actual actions.
To sum up these findings about guilt-proneness, then, none of the correlations reviewed here suggest that it is unhealthy or a sign of weakness. All the significant correlations are with things we consider to be positive. Correlations with anxiety, etc. seem not to exist. Correlations with depression even seem to be slightly negative–the more guilt-prone you are the less likely you are to be depressive. The authors conclude that it is not unhealthy and is a key aspect of moral disposition. In the remainder of the study they cite many findings indicating that the guilt prone in laboratory experiments are less likely to lie, be dishonest in a negotiation situation or exploit loopholes for corporate profits in a hypothetical situation. In the workplace the guilt prone are much less likely to turn up late, phone in sick when perfectly well, steal office supplies, and/or be rude to customers. The guilt prone seem to be good people to hire, probably good people to befriend or marry, and apparently at peace with their guilt proneness!
Cohen, T. R., Panter A., and Turan, Nazli (2012). Guilt Proneness and Moral Character. Current Directions in Psychological Science 21: 355-359.