The following is the first in a four-part series of articles on the literature on guilt. It is written as an introduction to the topic and should be read in order.
In the literature, we find guilt to be the main theme in John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, William Shakespeare's play “Macbeth,” Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat,” and in many other works. It is a major theme in many works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and is an almost universal concern of novelists who explore inner life and secrets.
The literature on guilt, like that on procrastination (see the ebook, Procrastination by this author), is theoretical, abstract and academic. I won’t dwell on too many details, but following are the general areas one can find relating to guilt. To keep it simple, I’ve divided the available information on guilt into loose and somewhat arbitrary categories.
Some evolutionary psychologists theorize that guilt and shame helped maintain beneficial relationships, such as reciprocal altruism. If a person feels guilty when he harms another or fails to reciprocate kindness, he is less likely to harm others or become too selfish. In this way, he reduces the chances of retaliation by members of his tribe, and thereby increases his survival prospects, as well as those of the tribe or group. As with some other emotions, guilt can be manipulated to control or influence others. As a highly social animal living in large groups that are relatively stable, we need ways to deal with conflicts and events in which we inadvertently or purposefully harm others. If someone causes harm to another, and then feels guilt and demonstrates regret and sorrow, the person harmed is more likely to forgive. Thus, guilt makes it possible to forgive, helps hold the social group together and reduces the risk of retaliation through violence.
Guilt is founded on our neurological system. We call this mechanism, mirror neurons. When we see another carrying out an action, we carry out the action ourselves in neuronal activity, though not in overt action. Their behaviors are replicated in our own nervous system, literally. When we see another person suffering, we can feel their suffering as if it is our own. This constitutes our powerful system of empathy, which motivates us to do something to relieve the suffering of others. If we cannot help another, or fail in our efforts, we experience bad feelings, one of which is guilt.
From the perspective of group selection, groups that are made up of a high percent of co-operators do better than groups with a low percent of co-operators when comparing between-group competition. The down side is that people who are more prone to high levels of empathy in general, or who specifically experience empathy-based guilt likely suffer more anxiety and depression. The upside is that they are also more likely to cooperate and behave altruistically. This is another way guilt-proneness is not always beneficial to the individual, or within-group competition, but highly beneficial in between-group competition. This brings into focus how guilt works in specialized groups.