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Social and behavioural, Stress and anxiety

Past experience of adversity can lead to feelings of guilt - and more compassion for others

Heightened feelings of guilt seem to be key to previously found association between personal experience of hardship and increased empathy.

01 November 2022

By Emma Young

There are reasons to view guilt as a damaging emotion. It does not feel good. It's also a key feature in major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders. And when someone feels personal guilt in relation to a trauma that they have suffered, such as abuse, they're more likely to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress. However, recent research also shows that this emotion can have upsides.

Guilt is generally viewed as stemming from a belief that you have done something wrong, either morally or socially, and as a result, caused harm to others. And there is work finding that people will make pro-social, unselfish choices to avoid feeling it.

A new paper in Emotion identifies another upside of guilt.  Past work has found that people who have suffered more adversity feel more empathy and compassion for others in need. Now Daniel Lim at Adelphi University and David DeSteno at Northeastern University find that feelings of guilt associated with personal experience of past hardship and trauma are the key driver of this effect.

In the first study, 127 US-based adults kept a three-week record of daily feelings of a variety of emotions, including guilt and compassion. Afterwards, they completed a survey that asked about any past life adversity, including bereavements, illnesses and difficulties in relationships. The researchers found that feelings of guilt and compassion tended to track each other — so on a day when someone felt more guilt, they also tended to feel more compassion. They also found that people who'd suffered more adversity tended to feel both more guilt and more compassion than the other participants.

To build on this, the pair ran a second study involving 126 online participants. They read a passage about the impact of conflict in Darfur on local people, and saw eight images of suffering children. This was intended to evoke compassion. The participants then reported on feelings of compassion and guilt. Again, the researchers found that levels of compassion were associated with levels of guilt — and that levels of both were linked to levels of past adversity. Their analysis suggested that feelings of guilt at least helped to explain the link between levels of past adversity and levels of compassion.

In the third, lab-based study on 100 participants, the pair directly manipulated feelings of guilt. Half of the participants were set up to physically collide with someone who they believed to be a fellow participant (but who was in fact a confederate). This 'accident' caused the confederate to drop a set of puzzle blocks that they had just spent time carefully arranging. The other half only witnessed the confederate dropping the puzzle blocks.

The researchers found that, as they'd expected, those who'd been led to cause the accident felt more guilt. They also found that, within this group, those who'd experienced more past adversity felt the most guilt. What's more, there was a stronger link between past adversity and feelings of compassion for the confederate among these participants than among those who'd only witnessed the accident. So, as the pair writes, people who'd suffered greater past adversity were more likely to experience a large spike in guilt from their involvement in the accident, and this prompted more compassion for the 'victim'.

Why would people who'd experienced greater adversity feel more guilt? It could be that knowing themselves what it is like to suffer, witnessing suffering in others leads them to feel more guilt at not having known about this suffering, or not already having done anything to help – or, in the case of the type of scenario in the second study, feel more guilt at causing someone else to suffer.

"The current set of studies offers an important insight related to the general notion that having experienced adversity in life can lead to increased compassion," the researchers write. The research also suggests a fresh social upside of guilt. Greater compassion could, the researchers write, "nudge people toward engaging in greater efforts to assist those in need".

Of course, there are factors that will influence how much guilt and compassion that someone who has experienced past adversity will feel in any given situation. People who are suffering from post-traumatic symptoms may be able to feel only limited compassion for others. And if they feel that the victim is in some way to blame for their suffering, this clearly could limit compassion. "Nonetheless," the pair concludes, "in general, it does appear that an adversity-induced propensity for guilt enhances compassion in most."