The Guilt – Empathy Connection
Sometimes the quietest moments are the most troubling. Serenity seems to occasionally pave the way for a sequence of thoughts triggered by a song or a smell, or anything really, that ushers in a blast from the past. A cavalcade of memories then flow forth both effortlessly and seamlessly. And all of this occurs outside of conscious control. For me, it often begins with a pleasant memory, but it can take a circuitous route, bringing me to memories that I would prefer remain inaccessible. The ending point is usually a moment in time where I come face to face with a mistake I made – usually a long forgotten unintentional misstep that reveled a less sensitive or perceptive side of my persona.
Does this sound familiar? I have long struggled to make sense of this sequence of thoughts. It’s not as though these distant missteps weigh heavily in my conscious mind. And most of the time they have no or very little current relevance. Almost always the events involve a situation where I had no intention of being hurtful. So why would my brain dredge up painful events and spoil a perfectly pleasant moment? It makes little sense to me.
I have long felt like there is a dark and deeply self effacing entity lurking in the shadows of my mind just waiting for an opportunity to rain guilt on me. Really, it does feel like there is something lurking inside my mind, stalking my thoughts, waiting for a memory that can be linked back to an event that will make me feel bad about myself. Freud’s notion of the Super-ego seems particularly relevant, but there is no evidence of such embodied moralistic forces battling it out in the brain. There are however, brain systems that interact in a way that are compellingly similar to Freud’s model with regard to active decision making. But it is not clear to me how, or why, these systems would reach back in time to spoil a moment of serenity.
As I understand it, the brain is comprised of a complex combinatorial neuronal network that has evolved over millions of years. With this being the case, there must be either some adaptive value to this capacity to stir up guilty feelings, or it may be a side effect of some other adaptive neurological system. These hypotheses are made assuming that this propensity is neither pathological or unique to me. Given the fact that these recall events do not adversely affect my life in any substantive way, beyond briefly bumming me out, and the likelihood that I am not alone in experiencing this – it must be adaptive at some level.
As it turns out there appears to be evidence for a relationship between dispositional empathy and one’s proneness to feelings of guilt. In a study titled Empathy, Shame, Guilt, and Narratives of Interpersonal Conflicts: Guilt-Prone People Are Better at Perspective Taking by Karen P. Leith and Roy F. Baumeister they found that Guilt:
“… seems to be linked to the important cognitive components of empathy, particularly the ability to appreciate another person’s perspective (or at least to recognize that the other’s perspective differs from one’s own). Guilt-proneness is linked to both the ability and the willingness to consider the other’s perspective.”
So these feelings of remote guilt may indeed be adaptive in that they fuel my perspective taking capacity. In other words, they compel me to be all the more careful and sensitive so as to facilitate better outcomes with regard to current social relationships (and thus avoid future negative recollections). I am inherently driven to look at the other person’s perspective in most of my encounters with people. It seems that those situations that spring forth from the depths of my memory are those occasions when I did not effectively employ good perspective taking.
Empathy is widely accepted as being an adaptive skill and perhaps guilt proneness facilitates positive feedback thus driving one toward more effective empathy. Or perhaps the guilty feelings drudged up are experiential outliers – the memories with stronger visceral tags – the ones that are more easily dragged to the forefront as my brain meanders down memory lane. Leith and Baumeister’s research did not address the retrospective nature of experiences like mine; therefore, I continue to speculate. But this link between empathy and guilt makes sense. Or maybe this is a self-serving bias.
If you have a moment, please click on the link below to answer some questions that will give me some preliminary information on this empathy-guilt relationship. It’s only 5 questions – and really, it should only take a minute or so.
Click here to take survey