The study found that guilt encourages people to repair a situation and helps to support cooperation
Feeling guilty has a positive effect on our behaviour and leads to better cooperation, according to a new study that could help people better manage everything from energy bills to climate change.
The study found that guilt encourages people to repair a situation and helps to support cooperation, while anger creates retaliation and a breakdown in cooperation. With the help of volunteers, researchers at the University of Nottingham in the UK looked into the role of emotions.
Using a scenario based around shared energy use in the home, they found that when energy use was made visible with smart meters and usage is unequal, as is common, the group reacted angrily and retaliated by using more energy. However, if the person using more energy felt guilty and moderated their usage the situation would be repaired and cooperation restored.
“We all know the term ‘guilt trip’ and understand how it feels,” said Anya Skatova, who led the study while she was at Nottingham. “Our study shows that rather than being wholly negative, feelings of guilt can actually be positive and lead to positive behaviour and improve cooperation,” said Skatova, who is now at the Warwick Business School in the UK.
The research also showed that while everybody feels angry if others are uncooperative causing retaliation, some people just do not feel guilt and remain uncooperative. This imbalance causes decline in cooperation, researchers said.
“If we understand that guilt leads to cooperation we can begin to recognise this and moderate our engagement activities accordingly to improve it,” said Alexa Spence, from the University of Nottingham.
“Cooperation is vital to everyday life, from the very small annoyances like not picking up dog mess on the street to the larger political landscape.