How guilt can lead to better co-operation

18 May 2017

  • Guilt is not a wholly negative emotion and can be used for good
  • Making people feel guilty leads to them co-operating
  • This could be applied to public problems like picking up dog mess
  • But anger found to harm co-operation in a group

A new study has found that feeling guilty has a positive effect on our behaviour and leads to better co-operation - a discovery that could help people better manage everything from dog mess and energy bills to climate change.

The study - ‘Guilty repair sustains co-operation, angry retaliation destroys it’ - published in Scientific Reports, was carried out by Anya Skatova, of Warwick Business School, and Alexa Spence, of the University of Nottingham.

It shows that guilt encourages people to repair a situation and helps to support co-operation, while anger creates retaliation and a breakdown in co-operation. 

With the help of volunteers the research team looked into the role of emotions. Using a scenario based around shared energy use in the home they found that when energy use was made visible with smart meters and usage is unequal, as is common, the group reacted angrily and retaliated by using more energy.

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But if the person using more energy felt guilty and moderated their usage the situation would be repaired and co-operation restored. 

Dr Skatova, a Research Fellow in the Behavioural Science Group, said: “We all know the term ‘guilt trip’ and understand how it feels. Our study shows that rather than being wholly negative, feelings of guilt can actually be positive and lead to positive behaviour and improve co-operation.” 

Dr Spence said: “The implications of this study are far reaching. If we understand that guilt leads to co-operation we can begin to recognise this and moderate our engagement activities accordingly to improve it.

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"Co-operation is vital to everyday life, from the very small annoyances like not picking up dog mess on the street to the larger political landscape. Recognising that anger can harm co-operation and guilt encourages co-operation could actually lead to a more harmonious society.”

Their research also showed that while everybody feels angry if others are not cooperative causing retaliation, some people just don't feel guilt and remain uncooperative. This imbalance causes a decline in co-operation.

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