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Feeling Guilty

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Daniel Akst has this post at the WSJ Ideas Market Blog.

Is there a way to predict who is more likely to lie, cheat, steal or be a louse generally? Try assessing guilt proneness.

That's the message of a new paper by a trio of social scientists reporting on research in this arena. It turns out that some people are considerably more prone to guilt than others, and their behavior is constrained by this predisposition to feel bad if they do something wrong--even when nobody else knows about the wrongdoing.
The paper is Taya Cohen, A.T. Panter, and Nazli Turan, Guilt Proneness and Moral Character, in the October 2012 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Guilt proneness is a personality trait indicative of a predisposition to experience negative feelings about personal wrongdoing, even when the wrongdoing is private. It is characterized by the anticipation of feeling bad about committing transgressions rather than by guilty feelings in a particular moment or generalized guilty feelings that occur without an eliciting event. Our research has revealed that guilt proneness is an important character trait because knowing a person's level of guilt proneness helps us to predict the likelihood that person will behave unethically. Web-based studies of adults across the United States have shown that people who score high on measures of guilt proneness (compared to low scorers) make fewer unethical business decisions, commit fewer delinquent behaviors, and behave more honestly when making economic decisions. In the workplace, guilt-prone employees are less likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors that harm their organization.

I don't have access to the full article, but the basic idea seems consistent with long established concepts.  There is the maxim "character is what you do when no one is looking."  Some people have internalized societal norms to a high degree, and behaving in a way contrary to those norms is uncomfortable for the person.  Call the internalized norms "conscience" or "superego" or "parent" as you wish.

Some people have no internalized norms.  They have no conscience.  They violate the rights of others without qualms, and they will continue to do so until we incapacitate them.  They are sociopaths.  We will always need prisons.

Should judges take remorse into account in sentencing?  To the extent that remorse indicates an active conscience, a genuinely remorseful offender may indeed be at a lower risk of recidivism.  Ah, but there is that "genuine" qualifier.  Some sociopaths are really good at faking it.

1 Comment

What I don't get is how these people can stand to sit in court and hear what they've done. I'd be so humiliated--for myself and worse, for my family.

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