2011. Vol.2, No.2, 98-102
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.22016
Eliciting Guilty Feelings: A Preliminary Study Differentiating
Deontological and Altruistic Guilt
Barbara Basile1,2, Francesco Mancini1
1School of Cognitive Psychotherapy, Italy;
2Neuroimaging Laboratory, Santa Lucia Foundation, IRCCS, Italy.
Received October 26th, 2010; revised January 5th, 2011; accepted January 20th, 2011.
Guilt has been identified as both an intrapsychic and an interpersonal emotion. The current study presents evi-
dence of the existence of two senses of guilt, deontological and altruistic guilt, induced through different ex-
perimental paradigms. Deontological guilt evolves from having slighted moral authority or norms, while altruis-
tic guilt arises from selfish behavior and the distress of others. We hypothesize that specific stimuli would evoke,
separately, deontological guilt and altruistic/interpersonal guilt feelings. Two different procedures were used to
test our hypothesis, adding two emotions as control conditions (i.e. anger and sadness). Results clearly indicate
that two different guilt emotions can be evoked separately, by appropriate stimulation. Findings and possible
clinical implications are discussed.
Keywords: Guilt, Deontological Guilt, Altruistic Guilt, Emotions
We usually experience a feeling of guilt when we recognize
ourselves as the cause of another person’s misfortune. However,
beyond this main meaning, guilty feelings might arise in dif-
ferent situations. Within psychological literature on guilt emo-
tions, two main hypotheses have been identified: the intrapsy-
chic (Izard, 1977; Lewis, 1971; Monteith, 1993; Mosher, 1965;
Mosher, 1966; Piers & Singer, 1971; Wertheim & Schwartz,
1983) and the interpersonal perspective (Baumeister, Stillwell
& Heatherton, 1994; Hoffman, 1981; Hoffman, 1987; Nieden-
thal, Tangney & Gavanski, 1994; Tangney, 1999; Tangney &
Dearing, 2002).
The intrapsychic theory states the inner moral rules and val-
ues we have learned and introjected since early stages of our
lives, resulting in Freud so called “Super-Io”, one of the most
fundamental structures of our psyche. According to this ap-
proach, guilt represents the emotional result of a conflict be-
tween our introjected moral authority rules and values, and our
behaviours, or their omissions. Its evolutionary function is the
respect of others’ rights and of authority. In this view, guilt
concerns with the feeling of having disobeyed to one’s own
inner moral values, even without really acting or sharing with
others. This might cause an expectation of punishment, expia-
tion or apologize. The person feeling guilty has the feeling of
being a “bad person” (Lewis, 1971).
The interpersonal theory posits that guilt results from the
awareness of having caused unjustified harm to another or, in a
more general sense, of not having behaved altruistically, thus
resulting in selfish behavior. This feeling is based on empathy
and compassion (Weiss, 1986). Within the interpersonal under-
standing, guilt might arise simply by observing someone who
has been unjustly penalized. More generally, interpersonal, or
altruistic guilt, might derive from not having behaved altruisti-
cally toward another person. Here, the trigger is the presence of
a suffering person, being unjustly penalized by chance, we did
not help, or not even tried to share his or her pain with others.
The evolutionary function of altruistic guilt is to establish
non-aggressive relationships and its aim is altruism (Baumeister,
Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994).
According to this, the first aim of this article was to clear out
this difference. A couple of experiments were also used to
validate an appropriate set of stimuli for a functional magnetic
resonance imaging (fMRI) paradigm (Ba sile, Mancini, Macaluso,
Caltagirone, Frackowiak, & Bozzali, 2010). An additional goal
achieves a methodological issue. Specifically, we aimed to test
which, between two distinct emotional procedure s, was the most
appropriate to evoke a complex emotion, such as guilt. Finally,
we ran a third experiment in order to check whether guilt, and not
other emotional stimuli, selectively evoked guilty feelings. Ac-
cording to this purpose, in our third study, guilt stimuli were
contrasted against other control emotions (that is, anger and
sadness). We also expected both deontological and altruistic
guilt being characterized by a specific emotional halo, further
strengthening and characterizing their difference. We predict
deontological guilt to be associated with emotions of shame and
disgust, and altruistic guilt with compassion and sadness feel-
We will present three experiments, involving a total of 128
healthy volunteers. In all studies we used Ekman’s ‘Pictures of
Facial Affect’ (Ekman & Friesen, 1976) depicting different
emotional facial expressions (50% males and 50% females)
coupled with specific sentences. Statements were matched by
length and complexity, in order to control for eventual con-
founding effects. Appropriate associations between faces and
statements aimed to evoke deontological and altruistic guilt
emotions. Typical target trials evoking deontological guilt were
elicited by coupling an angry face with sentences like: “Oh my
God! How could I do such a thing!?” or “How could I behave
that immorally!”. Conversely, altruistic guilt was evoked asso-
ciating a sad face with a sentence such as: “Why am I so lucky,
and why is she so unlucky?” or “How unfair! I am doing so
well, while he is so unlucky!”. Participants were presented with
trials in a random order. Subjects were asked to observe each
face and to imagine that an external person was experiencing
the specific emotion directed toward themselves. When con-
fronted with the short sentence, subjects were asked to imagine
those words as being part of their inner dialogue, associated with
the specific facial expression (See Figure 1, for timing of trials).
After each stimulus (face + statement) participants were asked to
rate the intensity of each of nine emotions (deontological guilt,
altruistic guilt, shame, sadness, anger, compassion, fear, disgust,
absence of emotion) on an eighteen-point visual analogue scale
(Visual Analogue Scale; VAS: 0 = not present, 18 = very in-
tense). Each VAS answer was defined by the emotion’s name,
its distinctive action tendency and a short description (i.e. VAS
descriptions for deontological and altruistic guilt, respectively:
“feelings of guilt related to lack of respect, need to apologize,
regret”, “feelings of guilt and sorrow towards the other person,
desire to sacrifice oneself to help”). For each stimulus, subjects
had one minute time to fulfill all nine-em otions VAS ratings.
Study 1
In the first experiment, involving 72 healthy volunteers (age
M = 30.06 SD = 4.74) years; range = 25 - 53: 63 females), we
aimed to investigate whether deontological and altruistic guilt
could be induced separately. Subjects were confronted with
eight, randomly occurring, trials (four stimuli for each condi-
tion). Our two experimental conditions included deontological
and altruistic guilt emotions. Stimuli were composed by an
emotional face and a guilt-inducing statement (See Figure 1 for
trials structure and timing). Faces, representing angry or sad
emotions, where coupled with specific statements in order to
evoke deontological or altruistic guilt emotion. Subjects were
asked to observe each face and to imagine that an external per-
son was experiencing the specific emotion directed toward
themselves. Then, a short sentence, representing an inner dia-
logue in response to the specific facial expression, was shown.
Finally, after each stimulus, volunteers were asked to rate the
intensity of each of nine emotions (fear, anger, sadness, shame,
disgust, compassion, deontological, and altruistic guilt, or no
emotion) on an eighteen-point VAS scale.
All statistical analyses were performed using the SPSS 13.0
statistical package.
Results and Discussion
Stimuli, which were supposed to induce deontological guilt,
indeed, were rated as significantly more intense on deontologi-
cal guilt (M = 8.46 SD = 5.04), than on altruistic guilt (M = 3.6
SD = 3.48), VAS emotions (t paired-test t (71) = 8.96,
two-tailed p = 0.000). Conversely, altruistic guilt trials evoked
significantly more intense altruistic guilt (M = 6.88 SD = 5.47)
VAS ratings, compared against deontological guilt ones (M =
2.35 SD = 2.54) (t pai red-test t (71) = 7.99, two-tailed p = .000).
Finally, while deontological guilt inducing stimuli evoked se-
lectively their congruent emotion, altruistic guilt stimuli in-
duced compassion (M = 10.19 SD = 5.16) and sadness (M =
6.09 SD = 4.17) (see Figure 2, upper panel).
(a) (b)
Figure 1.
Timing of each event in each trial is illustrated schematically. Each
trial included the presentation of an emotional face (angry or sad, for 3
seconds), followed by a contextual sentence (5 sec.). The content of the
sentence lead to two types of guilt (deontological and altruistic). At the
end of each trial, subjects were asked to rate the intensity of each of the
randomly occurring stimuli, rating each of nine emotions (deontologi-
cal guilt, altruistic guilt, shame, sadness, anger, compassion, fear,
disgust, absence of emotion) on an eighteen-point visual analogue scale
(VAS: 0 = not present, 18 = very intense) (60 sec.). Two examples for
study 1 (“emotional face /emotional sentence procedure) are illustrated
showing a trial with an angry face plus sentence inducing deontologi-
cal guilt (a), and a trial with a sad face plus sentence inducing altruis-
tic guilt (b).
This first experime nt confirme d our hypothesis, showing that
appropriate stimuli could elicit different kinds of guilty feelings,
respectively deontological and altruistic guilt.
Study 2
Aiming to test which method was the most effective in evok-
ing deontological and altruistic guilt emotions, we performed
another experiment. Here stimuli were the same as in the pre-
vious experiments, but order was inverted, resulting in the
“emotional sentence/emotional face” procedure. In this second
study, we recruited 55 new healthy volunteers (M = 31.05 years
SD = 6.29; range = 25 - 56; 47 females). Again, each stimulus
of the two experimental conditions was followed by emotional
intensity VAS ratin g s on nine emotions.
Results and Discussion
As expected, deontological guilt stimuli evoked more intense
deontological guilt feelings (M = 10.16 SD=4.38), than altruistic
guilt ones (M = 3.0 SD = 4.17), on VAS emotions (t paired-test t
(54) = 9.29, two-tailed p = .000). Conversely, altruistic guilt
trials selectively evoked stronger altruistic guilt (M = 6.91 SD =
4.72) VAS ratings, than deontological guilt ones (M = 2.1 SD =
2.52) (t paired-test t (54) = 7.99, two-tailed p = .000). Again,
altruistic guilt stimuli also induced intense ratings in VAS of
compassion (M = 12.67 SD = 3.52) and sadness (M = 7.37 SD =
3.78). Deontological guilt stimuli evoked the most intense rat-
ing in the expected VAS response (that is, deontological guilt).
However, significant halo effect was observed in shame (M =
8.57 SD = 5.32) and sadness (M = 6.34 SD = 4) VAS ratings .
Oneway-ANOVA was used to check for face/sentence order
effect. Results showed how the second procedure (sentence
followed by the facial expression)was more effective in inducing
Figure 2.
Mean intensity of VAS ratings for deontological (left panel) and altruistic (right panel) guilt conditions. Means are shown, for study (a) (“emotional
face/emotional sentence procedure) and (b) (“emotional sentence/emotional face procedure).
emotional states. Concerning with deontological guilt stimuli,
shame, deontological guilt, and sadness, VAS ratings were
significantly more intense in the “emotional sentence/emotional
face” procedure (shame F(1.125) = 15.31, p = .000; deonto-
logical guilt, F(1.125) = 3.95, p < .05; sadness F(1.125) = 5.92,
p < .01), compared against the “emotional face/emotional sen-
tence” one. The same effect was detected in the altruistic guilt
set of stimuli, concerning with compassion, disgust, and, almost
reaching significance, sad VAS answers (disgust, F(1.125) =
9.49, p < .003; compassion, F(1.125) = 9.39, p < .003) (see Fig-
ure 2, lower panel).
Taken together, the prediction that deontological and altruis-
tic guilt would be evoked separately was again supported. More
specifically, a significantly stronger effect was observed in this
procedure, compared against the “emotional face/emotional
sentence” method. A possible explanation for these different
findings is that contextualizing facial expression, through the
statements representing subjects’ inner dialogue, is more effec-
tive in emotional induction.
Study 3
In order to check whether guilt emotions were specific to
guilt-inducing stimuli, a group of 35 subjects (M = 31.03 years
SD = 5.01; range = 26 - 56; 30 females) was also administered
with stimuli inducing angry, sad and no emotions. Anger state-
ments, associated with the same angry faces used in deonto-
logical guilt stimuli, included sentences such as: “How dare she?
Staring at me in such a way!” or “Who does he think he is?!
Looking at me in such a way!”. Sad sentences, associated with
previously used sad facial expressions, included statements like:
“What has happened to her, she looks so sad!” or “He must be
really desperate! Crying in such a way!”. Neutral statements,
such as “The restaurant is there, behind the corner”, were cou-
pled with neutral facial expression.
Results and Discussion
In this last experiment anger, sad and neutral stimuli were
added to guilt-evoking trials. According to results obtained
comparing VAS ratings intensity in study 1 and 2, we choose
the “emotional statements/emotional faces” procedure, as re-
sulting the most effective in inducing emotional states.
As expected, again, deontological guilt stimuli evoked sig-
nificantly higher rates in deontological guilt feelings (M = 9.68
SD = 4.64), than in altruistic guilt (M = 1.6 SD = 2.3) VAS
emotions (t paired-test t(34) = 9.5, two-tailed p = 0.000). Con-
versely, altruistic guilt trials evoked significantly more intense
altruistic guilt (M = 7.91 SD = 4.86) VAS ratings, compared
against deontological guilt ones (M = 1.77 SD = 2.29) (t
paired-test t( 34) = 7.4, two-tailed p = .000).
Concerning with other than guilt stimuli, angry sentences
followed by congruent faces, selectively elicited anger VAS
responses (M = 12.01 SD = 4.4), compared against other VAS
answers (t paired-test t(34) = 7.7, two-tailed p = .000). Simi-
larly, sad statements plus sad faces were significantly more
appropriate to evoke the congruent VAS answers, including
both compassion (M = 12.82 SD = 3.7) and sadness (M = 7.78
SD = 4.11). Sad stimuli elicited significantly more intense
compassion, than sadness VAS ratings (t paired-test t(34) =
8.35, two-tailed p = .000). Neutral stimuli did not evoke any
significant emotion in VAS ratings, all reaching approximately
The last study confirmed that specific guilt-inducing stimuli,
and not other emotional stimuli, selectively evoked the hy-
pothized guilty feelings. Finally, across all experiments, spe-
cifically in the second one, a halo effect was observed. Intense
shame VAS ratings (M = 8.5 SD = 5.3) were reported when
subjects were confronted with deontological guilt stimuli, while
compassion (M = 12.6 SD = 3.4) and sadness (M = 7.31 SD =
3.7) were associated with altruistic guilt stimuli.
General Discussion
The purpose of the present study was to investigate whether
deontological and altruistic guilt could be induced separately,
through appropriate stimuli (facial expressions and content-
specific statements). We aimed to investigate whether guilt
emotions could be differentiated on the basis of an intrapsychic
(deontological guilt) and an interpersonal (altruistic guilt) per-
spective. Indeed, our three experiments showed evidence of
different guilt expressions, which might be evoked separately.
We showed how the appropriate association between specific
statements and congruent facial expressions selectively elicited
different types of guilt. In the first two studies different emo-
tional induction procedures were used. In the first one, facial
expressions were followed by deontological or altruistic state-
ments, while in the second, and most effective, procedure sen-
tences were shown first, followed by facial expressions. Finally,
in the last study, two other set of emotional stimuli (represent-
ing angry and sad emotions), and an additional neutral one,
were introduced in order to confirm the specific selective effect
of guilt and other-than-guilt emotional responses.
Moreover, each type of guilt seemed to be characterized by a
specific emotional halo. More specifically, feelings of deonto-
logical guilt seemed to be associated with shame, but not dis-
gust, as expected (Miller, 1997) and, to a lesser extent, sadness.
On the other hand, altruistic guilt, as enclosing more interper-
sonal emotions, was associated with intense feelings of com-
passion and sadness. These results emphasize the negative va-
lence of guilt related emotions, and represent clear evidence of
a common underlying substrate involving suffering toward
one-self and toward others, the latter being more intense when
experiencing altruistic guilt feelings (Tilghman-Osborne, Cole,
& Felton, 2010).
Commonly, guilt has been considered as a pro-social emo-
tion, promoting constructive and proactive pursuits, leading to
reparative and more emphatic behavior ( Lewis, 1971; Monteith,
1993; Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007). This main goal is
evident in altruistic guilt and, to less extend, in deontological
guilt, which has shown to be associated with feelings of shame.
Although shame has been defined as a moral emotion (Frank,
1988; Ketelaar, 2004; Smith, 1759) very closely related to guilt,
there is growing evidence that they are clearly distinguishable
(Tangney, 1991; Tangney, 1995; Tangney, 1995; Tangney,
1996; De Hooge, Zeelenberg, & Breugelmans, 2007). Guilt and
shame share some common characteristics, but might be dis-
tinguished on the basis of their public-private dimension, their
action tendencies (hiding and escaping in shame, and confess-
ing, apologizing or undoing the consequences of the behavior in
guilt) and on their intensity (shame being described as more
painful and intense) (Lewis, 1971; Tangney& Dearing, 2002;
Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007).
Our results support previous literature suggesting a distinc-
tion between an intrapsychic and an interpersonal guilty feeling.
While deontological guilt is a self-directed and inner feeling,
which does not require an external agent, altruistic guilt needs
an external cause (i.e. another person) to be elicited. In conclu-
sion, our study supports the view of different kinds of guilty
feelings, each characterized by specific goals, thoughts, and
action tendencies (Roseman, Wiest, & Swartz, 1994).
Our findings could have also interesting clinical implications.
Previous studies have demonstrated that both depressed and
obsessive patients are sensitive specifically to interpersonal
guilt (Esherick, M., O’Connor, L. E., Berry, J. W., & Weiss,
1999; O’Connor, Berry, Weiss, & Gilbert, 2002), which would
correspond to our altruistic guilt. By contrast, Mancini (2008)
has recently suggested that obsessive- compulsi ve pati ents c ould
be selectively sensitive to deontological guilt, and not to altru-
istic, or interpersonal, guilt. In fact, Lopatcka, Rachman (Lo-
patka & Rachman, 1995) and Shafran (Shafran, 1997) have
demonstrated that obsessives’ concern over a harmful event, for
instance, a gas explosion, was drastically reduced if responsibility
for the event was transferred to someone else (i.e. the psycho-
therapist). According to this data, obsessive patients’ concern is
not for the victims, but for self-reproach or another’s reproach
for having violated a moral norm, like prudence. Moreover, as
clinical observations suggest, obsessive patients are frequently
concerned about sins. For instance, a religious or sexual nature,
even though no harm is caused to anyone, and obsessions and
compulsions are aimed to control or prevent them.
Our study has several limitations. In the three samples, fe-
males were over-represented, and participants were quite young
and also influenced by Catholic culture. It is, thus, possible that
our results may not be generalized to a broader population.
Similar studies should be replicated including males and older
populations. Additionally, a similar procedure might be used on
clinical populations including patients with obsessive- compul-
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