The Psychology of Guilt: Definition & Concept

Instructor: Chevette Alston

Dr. Alston has taught intro psychology, child psychology, and developmental psychology at 2-year and 4-year schools.

This lesson defines the concept of guilt, explains how it can be formed, and gives an everyday example of how the concept is seen in our daily lives. When you're finished reading, test what you learned with a quiz.

The Psychology of Guilt

Guilt can be described as a conflict between the id, ego, and superego. These are concepts from the father of psychology Sigmund Freud. Freud describes the superego as the highly moral part of our subconscious. It is the part of us that fights against injustice and points out wrongs in others. The alter to this persona is the id or the primitive, unrestrained parts of our subconscious. Freud believed that the superego and the id are mediated by the ego, which represents a struggle for mental balance between these polar opposites. The conflict between the superego and the ego could also be associated with our guilt, or the conflicted feelings about one's actions. Whether real or imagined, guilt is actually a feeling of responsibility or remorse for an offense or crime.

Guilt is more likely to be present after the morals of right and wrong have been taught and reinforced. This is when the highly rigid morals of the superego and the logical rationale of the ego are at odds. For example, if you're having a bad morning and you snap at a co-worker, you may feel guilty for using your negative mood against them. Your guilt may want you to apologize or explain yourself because you had no intention to offend them. If not your offense may 'haunt' you or make you feel bad about yourself.

Is Guilt Learned or Motivated?

Most people have at some point in their life, been conditioned (taught/learned) to feel guilty. This guilt usually came from family, friends, society, and those who consciously or unconsciously teach us to feel guilty for thinking or acting in a certain manner. For example, in childhood many people were often reminded of their bad behavior. Disappointing a parent or being compared to other children may have the intent of changing 'bad' behavior to 'good' behavior. However, conditioning a person to seek this type of approval can easily carry over into one's adulthood. This conditioning is constantly seeking approval from others for our behavior. Many people may even go against their morals or resources in order to avoid the discomfort of guilt or guilty feelings. With this in mind, guilt can be both learned and motivated, because it is conditioned behavior.

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