The utility of guilt

Guilt’s benefits, in ascending order: it keeps us from being sociopaths; reminds us that we shouldn’t do bad things and that when we do we should make (or seek) amends; and it may serve as a proxy for self-control, making possible the growth and development befitting a genuine fruit of the spirit.

Guilt in its many varieties — Puritan, Catholic, Jewish, etc. — has often gotten a bad rap, but psychologists keep finding evidence of its usefulness. Too little guilt clearly has a downside — most obviously in sociopaths who feel no remorse, but also in kindergartners who smack other children and snatch their toys. Children typically start to feel guilt in their second year of life, says Grazyna Kochanska, who has been tracking children’s development for two decades in her laboratory at the University of Iowa….

“Children respond with acute and intense tension and negative emotions when they are tempted to misbehave, or even anticipate violating norms and rules,” Dr. Kochanska said. “They remember, often subconsciously, how awful they have felt in the past.”

In Dr. Kochanska’s latest studies, published in the August issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, she and colleagues found that 2-year-olds who showed more chagrin during the broken-toy experiment went on to have fewer behavioral problems over the next five years. That was true even for the ones who scored low on tests measuring their ability to focus on tasks and suppress strong desires to act impulsively.

from “Guilt and Atonement on the Path to Adulthood,” by John Tierney, The New York TImes, 24 August 2009 :: via 3quarksdaily

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