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Cognition and perception, Emotion

You’ll get over it, you’re probably better at managing guilt and shame than you think

Just because we tend underestimate the intensity of our future emotions from an objective point of view, doesn’t mean that this is an unhelpful bias to have.

30 March 2016

By Christian Jarrett

A recurring finding in psychology is that people tend to overestimate the strength of their future emotions, an error known as the "intensity bias". You imagine that failing your driving test will leave you in the depths of despair, for example, but actually when it happens, you don't really feel too bad – the examiner was mean, you were feeling tired, and anyway you've still got your mate's party to look forward to next weekend. In other words, the reason you overestimated the emotional impact of the exam failure, is that you underestimated your powers of emotional regulation. A new study in Cognition and Emotion puts this account to the test, specifically for the emotions of guilt and shame.

Wilco van Dijk and his colleagues recruited 52 students and allocated half to complete three tests with a partner (an actor pretending to be another student), and the other half to forecast how they would feel in the testing situation were they to do it. The "experiencers" were told that if they and their partner together averaged a score of over 60 per cent on the maths, language and puzzle tests, then they would receive a cash bonus. After taking the tests, these participants were given fixed feedback informing them that they'd personally underperformed (designed to induce shame), and that therefore both they and their partner would miss out on the cash bonus (designed to induce guilt). The "forecasters" were asked to imagine being in this exact same situation and how they would feel.

After receiving the bad news about their performance, the experiencers rated their levels of guilt and shame, and how much they engaged in various strategies that usually reduce emotional intensity, including reappraising the situation (measured by agreement with statements like "the task wasn't that important"); suppressing their feelings ("I'm trying to be as calm as possible"); and acceptance ("I can live with the current situation"); and also how much they engaged in rumination, which usually increases emotional intensity ("I'm thinking mostly about what I did wrong"). Meanwhile, the forecasters stated how much guilt and shame they thought they would experience if they were in this situation, and how much emotional regulation they thought they would probably engage in.

The main finding is that the forecasters overestimated how much guilt and shame they thought they would experience (as compared with the actual emotions reported by the experiencers) – this is a classic example of the intensity bias, but the first time it's been demonstrated for the so-called "self-conscious" emotions of guilt and shame. The forecasters also underestimated how much acceptance they would engage in, and they overestimated how much they would ruminate. Moreover, the forecasters' overestimation of their guilt and shame was largely explained by their misjudgments about their likely use of acceptance and rumination.

Of course just because we tend underestimate the intensity of our future emotions from an objective point of view, doesn't mean that this is an unhelpful bias to have. The researchers point out, for example, that the intensity bias could help motivate us to avoid bad outcomes and find positive ones (I would add that in the case of anticipated guilt and shame, the bias also likely helps encourage people to engage in more ethical behaviour). "Thus, although turning a blind eye to our emotion regulation processes can be regarded as error when we look in the crystal ball of our emotion lives," the researchers said, "it is perhaps not a grave one".

Further reading

van Dijk, W., van Dillen, L., Rotteveel, M., & Seip, E. (2016). Looking into the crystal ball of our emotional lives: emotion regulation and the overestimation of future guilt and shame Cognition and Emotion, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2015.1129313