Guilt Is Good

The more guilt you feel, the better friend, co-worker and boss you just might be.

Researchers Taya Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University and A.T. Panter of the University of North Carolina examined people’s predisposition to feelings of guilt and how it influences their behavior in the workplace in a recent article in academic journal “Current Directions in Psychological Science.”

Their conclusion: People more prone to feelings of guilt are more likely to be sympathetic, able to see situations from others’ perspectives, consider future consequences of their behavior and value moral traits.

“There’s quite a bit of variability between people who, when faced with tempting situations, are likely to yield to temptation and do things that are ethically questionable and people [who] are better able to resist those temptations and act more ethically,” said Cohen, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory.

People who are subject to high levels of guilt proneness — the predisposition to feel bad about a negative personal behavior before they actually do it — are less likely to engage in bad or counterproductive behavior, such as showing up late for work, stealing office supplies and being rude to clients and customers, even when no one is monitoring them, Cohen said.

Measuring Guilt Proneness
Researchers measure workers’ proneness to feelings of guilt using the 16-item Guilt and Shame Proneness (GASP) scale which asks participants to rate their feelings in an imaginary situation on a seven-point scale. Assessment items include questions such as: After realizing you received too much change at the store, you decide to keep it because the sales clerk doesn’t notice. What’s the likelihood you would feel uncomfortable about keeping the money?

“The idea is that there is a private situation where you’ve done something wrong — in this case, keeping too much change — and [to rate] how bad you feel about what you did,” Cohen said.

The researchers found that 39 percent of adults surveyed rated low in guilt proneness, 27 percent had medium guilt proneness scores and 34 percent had high levels of guilt proneness.

“The people that we’d categorize as low are much more likely to perform these counterproductive work behaviors — these are things that harm the organization — whereas people that are high are much less likely compared to average,” Cohen said.

The research also showed that women are more guilt prone than men and guilt proneness increases as people get older.

“As people get older they recognize often the consequences of their own behavior for themselves and towards other people,” Cohen said. “Guilt is related to consideration of others — things like empathy or perspective taking. People who are more likely to consider other people and consider the future consequences of their actions are more likely to be guilt prone.”

Guilt at Work
Cohen is now conducting research to validate the use of GASP in high-stakes situations in the workplace, such as hiring and promotion, and hopes to be able to show similar conclusions about work behavior.

People who are predisposed to feel guilt are less likely to make unethical business decisions, lie for monetary gain or cheat during negotiations, said Cohen. Being able to assess and identify a worker’s level of guilt proneness can have real benefits for the organization not just in selection and hiring but also in ongoing development and career growth.

“It’s really important to recognize at the end you have to live with yourself and your own decisions,” Cohen said. “You should be aware that if you are feeling uncomfortable about a particular decision and might feel guilty about it later, it’s important to recognize those feelings and see whether that might change your decision making.”

Mike Prokopeak is the editorial director at Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at