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Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5 ⁄ 7 (2011): 440–457, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2011.00364.

Guilt and Guiltlessness: An Integrative Review

Hanyi Xu*, Laurent Bègue, and Rébecca Shankland
Université Pierre Mendés-France

This paper reviews the relationship between guilt and prosocial behaviors, and integrates multiple
antisocial phenomena with the construct of guiltlessness both at the interpersonal and intergroup
level. Interpersonal guilt is basically prosocial and introspective. Collective guilt is the vicarious
acceptance of misdeeds of the ingroup. Yet it is sometimes so painful and detrimental for the indi-
vidual and the society to tolerate guilt that people do not feel guilty, especially when the possibil-
ity of reparation is low. We argue that guilt is the acceptance of the mildly undesirable self
whereas guiltlessness is the rejection of unbearable mental distress of anticipatory guilt. Guiltless-
ness requires great efforts for defense and justification. Multiple strategies and justifications are
sought to relieve guilt. Furthermore, guiltlessness is related to various personality and ideology
variables and entails moral disengagement. Guiltlessness can be destructive because, for example,
during times of large-scale conflicts ordinary people who feel guiltless are inclined to become
ruthless. Reciprocity morality, ostracism, deservingness, empathy, and self-control are proposed as
means of explaining the origins of guilt and their implications for guiltlessness.

To take upon oneself not punishment, but guilt – that alone would be godlike. Friedrich
In the film ‘Atonement’, young Briony mistook Robbie, who was actually the lover of
her elder sister Cecilia, for her cousin Lola’s rapist. This blunder leads to Robbie’s impris-
onment and Cecilia’s consequent anguish. As Briony grew up and as she gradually dis-
covered her mistake, she made great efforts to redeem herself. She constantly apologized
to Cecilia and joined Cecilia’s old nursing corps to care for wounded English soldiers in
World War II instead of taking up a place at Cambridge University. This is a good
example of how people with a guilty conscience make up for their past misdeeds by con-
fession, apology, and reparation (even to irrelevant people). Yet in everyday life, we often
observe counterexamples. For example, in the international Criminal Court, two leaders
of Congolese rebel groups were accused of masterminding the massacre of 200 people.
Victims included women and children in the bloody episode of Congo war. However,
both men pled innocent. Disregard and apathy toward victims are like capricious twins of
atonement, redemption, and reparation. Guilty conscience appears to differentiate them,
but to our knowledge, there are more theories which try to explain the enhanced altruis-
tic and cooperative behaviors of guilty transgressors than theories focusing on indifferent
and negative attitudes toward victims. In this paper, we will begin by presenting theories
and empirical evidence about guilt which consider it as the main source of enhanced
altruism after transgression, and then describe the construct of guiltlessness at interpersonal
and intergroup levels, and its relation to prejudice, discrimination, and antisocial

ª 2011 The Authors

Social and Personality Psychology Compass ª 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors 441

Guilt and Prosocial Behavior

Interpersonal guilt: definition and evidence

Guilt is fundamentally prosocial because it strengthens interpersonal relationships (Bau-
meister, 1997). It is a kind of regretful, remorseful, painful, and aversive feeling aroused
by one’s own actions or inactions (e.g., Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994; Fer-
guson & Stegge, 1998). Guilt is different from regret in that guilt is more related to inter-
personal harm whereas regret is more related to intrapersonal harm (Berndsen, Van der
Pligt, Doosje, & Manstead, 2004). Shame is different from guilt in that it pertains to the
self rather than the action and it is related to withdrawal rather than approach (Baumeister
et al., 1994). Guilt is usually related to and is operationalized as the acceptance of respon-
sibility for (e.g., Manstead & Tetlock, 1989) and controllability of (e.g., Tracy & Robins,
2006) harm. Guilt has long been related to prosocial behavior. People tend to use altruis-
tic means when under the stress of guilt (Baumeister et al., 1994; Carlsmith & Gross,
1969; Freedman, Wallington, & Bless, 1967).
In experimental settings, after having done something wrong such as giving electric
shocks to a fellow-subject, impeding the experiment, lying or cheating, subjects cooperate
more with the experimenter or the confederate when given the possibility (e.g., Carl-
smith & Gross, 1969; Darlington & Macker, 1966; Freedman et al., 1967; Regan, 1971).
For example, Carlsmith and Gross (1969) have shown that subjects who were instructed
to give electric shocks to a confederate increased their help for the confederate later on.
This effect is not limited to the transgressor: individuals who witnessed the transgression
are also more prone to help the victim (Carlsmith & Gross, 1969; Darlington & Macker,
1966). For example, Darlington and Macker (1966) conducted an experiment in which
approximately half the subjects were led to believe that they failed to help the confederate
earn the credits in an experimental task, these credits being considered as necessary for
the confederate to accomplish his or her studies and future career. The other half were
told that the confederate was indifferent to the credits so that the failure would not affect
him. Subsequently, more subjects whose confederate pretended to need the credits agreed
to donate blood to a local hospital than those whose confederate pretended to be indiffer-
ent to the credits. A robust explanation for such enhanced prosocial behavior is guilt
aroused by transgression. As Baumeister (1997) once claimed: ‘‘Guilt is backward-looking
in many cases because it focuses on what one has done wrong in the past, but guilt also
has a strong anticipatory element’’ (p. 306). It can motivate transgressors to restore reci-
procal relations (e.g., Baumeister et al., 1994; Eisenberg, 2000; Gilbert, 2003; Tangney &
Fischer, 1995) by reconciliation, apologies, and reparation (e.g., Hoffman, 1998; Keltner
& Buswell, 1996; Tangney, 1999). Thus, prosocial behaviors appear to reduce guilt in
transgressors as if they compensated for the harm done.

Interpersonal guilt: an introspective power against the self

Guilt is an introspective emotion which is the reflective result of the association between
the self and the negative event (Baumeister, Vohs, DeWall, & Zhang, 2007). As Steele
(1990) suggested, guilt is powerful because it shows undesirable aspects of the self. Self-
conscious emotions (e.g., shame, guilt, pride, and embarrassment) critically involve self-
evaluative processes: an individual reflects on his or her stable self-representations and
compares the emotion-eliciting event with these representations (Tracy & Robins, 2004,
2007). Tracy and Robins (2004) propose that negative self-conscious emotions (e.g.,

ª 2011 The Authors Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5 ⁄ 7 (2011): 440–457, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2011.00364.x
Social and Personality Psychology Compass ª 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
442 Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors

guilt, shame) result from the inconsistency between self-identity and the goal of what one
wishes to be, thus leading to a failure to accept the negative event while trying to main-
tain self-identity. For example, after watching videos about civil rights, Whites reacted
antisocially when their personal integrity was threatened, but prosocially (support for
Black program) after their personal integrity had been reaffirmed (Harvey & Oswald,
The social reciprocity trait of guilt can make self-condemnation devastating for the self.
Guilty people usually score low on self-forgiveness scales (Strelan, 2007) and seek punish-
ment and deprivation (e.g., Carveth, 2001; Lindsay-Hartz, de Rivera, & Mascolo, 1995;
Nelissen & Zeelenberg, 2009; Roseman, Wiest, & Swartz, 1994). For example, survivor
guilt (i.e., self-reproach over the death of significant others; Friedman, 1981; Okulate &
Jones, 2006) and self-reproach over being better off than others can be aroused in inter-
personal contexts (Baumeister et al., 1994) as well as after traumatic events such as natural
disasters or wars (Carballo et al., 2004; Southwick, Gilmartin, McDonough, & Morrissey,

Collective guilt: definition and evidence

As homo sociologicus, a human being is constantly influenced by others in the same
community (Lickel, Schmader, Curtis, Scarnier, & Ames, 2005). According to self-cate-
gorization theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987), group members
perceive themselves as exemplars of the ingroup and consider the ingroup image as part
of their self-image when their social identity is salient (Smith & Henry, 1996). By doing
so, they experience group-based emotions on behalf of their group, and in turn those
collective emotions will trigger their corresponding behavior (Cialdini et al., 1976; Smith,
1993, 1999).
Collective emotions can be extremely salient during intergroup conflicts. The ingroup
members experience discrete intergroup emotions toward outgroups which pose different
threats upon them (Cottrell & Neuberg, 2005; Devos, Silver, Mackie, & Smith, 2002;
Mackie et al., 2000; Smith, 1993, 1999). One of the most critical threats to the ingroup
is its questioned morality (Branscombe, Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 1999). Thus it is
plausible that when social identity is made salient to people and their ingroup morality is
perceived to be threatened, they will feel guilty (Branscombe, Slugoski, & Kappen, 2004;
Doosje, Branscombe, Spears, & Manstead, 1998, 2006; Tangney & Fischer, 1995). For
example, if the transgression was controllable and the person has a connection with the
transgressor, then he ⁄ she might feel vicarious guilt (Lickel et al., 2005). Dutch students
felt guilty over their past history of colonization in Indonesia and were motivated to
atone for that (Doosje et al., 1998). White guilt was aroused if White participants were
unfairly advantaged compared to Black subjects (Branscombe, 2002; Steele, 1990).
In summary, collective guilt is aroused when the ingroup is perceived to take advan-
tage of, or even illegitimately harm, another group (Branscombe, 2004; Branscombe,
Schmitt, & Schiffhauer, 2007). Just as in interpersonal contexts, collective guilt is based
on the acceptance of responsibility for the undeserved outcome or the injustice carried
out by the ingroup (Doosje et al., 1998; Iyer, Leach, & Crosby, 2003; Lickel et al.,
2005). Furthermore, collective guilt is often followed by support for compensation for
the disadvantaged group (Brown & Cehajic, 2008; Brown, González, Zagefka, Manzi, &
Cehajic, 2008; Castano & Giner-Sorolla, 2006; Doosje et al., 1998; Iyer et al., 2003;
Zebel, Zimmermann, Viki, & Doosje, 2008).

ª 2011 The Authors Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5 ⁄ 7 (2011): 440–457, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2011.00364.x
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Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors 443

Collective guilt and social identification

The extent to which a member identifies with the ingroup influences the extent of collec-
tive guilt. When social identity is salient, people who identify more with their ingroup
express more group-level emotions than those who identify less with it (Seger, Smith, &
Mackie, 2009). An important aspect of collective guilt is the acceptance of the negative
aspect of the ingroup image. Wohl, Branscombe, and Klar (2006) suggested a model of
collective guilt acceptance. Self-categorization as a member of a perpetrator group, accep-
tance of ingroup responsibility, appraisal of illegitimacy of the event, and moderate ingroup
costs are all antecedents of collective guilt acceptance. According to Wohl et al., collective
guilt will be experienced with sufficient intensity to motivate people to act only when the
wrongs of the ingroup are moderately difficult to atone for. However, the ingroup costs
can be so high that it outweighs the importance of rectifying the harm. Apology, reduced
prejudice toward outgroup and positive intergroup relations are consequences of collective
guilt acceptance. For example, people are relatively indifferent to negative suggestions of
their ingroup which originate from an outgroup compared with those from their ingroup.
And this effect is stronger among high identifiers who are less likely to accept the negative
aspect of the ingroup than low identifiers (Doosje et al., 2006). It has been shown that col-
lective guilt was aroused among low identifiers who were willing to accept the ‘stain’ of
their ingroup (Doosje et al., 1998). That is because (a) this kind of acceptance will threaten
high identifiers’ collective self-image with their ingroup more than low identifiers; (b) high
identifiers are more motivated to manage their collective guilt while low identifiers are less
motivated to do so (Doosje et al., 1998).

Where does guilt originate from and where does it end?

There are several theories that explain the origins of interpersonal guilt. To our knowl-
edge, few theories tackle the phenomenology of guiltlessness. In the following section,
we briefly summarize the theories about the origins of guilt, some of which provides
possible explanations of the origins of guiltlessness.

I feel guilty because I ruined our reciprocal agreement: reciprocity morality

The assumption that emotions have interpersonal functions has been confirmed by many
research studies. For example, emotions facilitate the development of long-term social
bonds (Keltner, Haidt, & Shiota, 2006) and reciprocity (Trivers, 1971). As for moral
emotions, a well-socialized society counts on their frequent occurrence as they implicitly
and automatically help to regulate people’s behavior in the absence of institutional sanc-
tion (e.g., Ausubel, 1955; Freud, 1930). Hence, guilt functions as a higher-order moral
emotion, such as sympathy, to motivate moral behavior (Hoffman, 1998). Several
researchers have argued that guilt results from the morally and normatively unacceptable
behavior committed by the transgressor who will later suffer from it (e.g., Smith & Ells-
worth, 1985). In this light, guilt is aroused by the breach of personal moral standards or
social norms (e.g., Ferguson, Stegge, & Damhuis, 1991). It is thought to be the conse-
quence of reciprocity violation and to lead to remedial behaviors which reestablish reci-
procity (i.e., restoration of relationship with the victimized individual) and restore a
positive self-concept (Cottrell & Neuberg, 2005). However, the fact that the witness of a
transgression also carries out prosocial behaviors cannot be explained by this theory as the
relationship – if any – between witness and victim has not been affected.

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444 Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors

From this theory, we can conclude that if there is no reciprocity, there is no guilt. For
example, when a culprit hurts a stranger that he ⁄ she has never met before and will never
meet again, guilt will be aroused to a lesser extent compared with a situation in which an
acquaintance is the victim.

I feel guilty because I am afraid of being excluded: ostracism

According to developmental psychologists, guilt develops because of the withdrawal of
parental love. The distress, anxiety, and fear following transgression are products of the
threat of exclusion from significant relationships (Kochanska & Aksan, 1995). The inten-
sity of guilt is proportional to the significance of the harmed relationship (Baumeister,
1997). The compensation behavior such as altruistic helping and cooperation repairs both
interpersonal relationships and the attachment of the actor to his ⁄ her society (Baumeister
et al., 1994; Iyer et al., 2003; Lickel et al., 2005). This theory of guilt implies that guilt is
dependent on specific relationships and serves to maintain them.
One of the limitations of this theory concerns the explanation of enhanced cooperation
of witnesses, considering the fact that they are not threatened by ostracism as they did
not commit the transgression themselves. However, the important point which is made
by this theory is that when a victim poses no threat of ostracism, the perpetrator will find
alternatives to reparation to relieve guilt (e.g., infrahumanization) or not feel any guilt.

I feel guilty because I deserve punishment: deservingness

According to Lerner and Simmons (1966), people need to believe in a just world in
which everyone gets what he ⁄ she deserves, and this need leads to a belief in a just
world. This conception of deservingness helps to explain general guilt after transgres-
sion. For example, transgression is usually considered as ‘bad’. According to just-world
theory, the transgressor must be blamed for the disturbance and deserves punishment. If
there is neither punishment nor remorse expressed, the belief in a just world is threa-
tened, both for the witness and for the transgressor himself ⁄ herself. Consequently, the
witness feels angry because of the transgression and calls for punishment and reparation.
This conception is supported by several indirect empirical investigations focusing on
belief in fairness. Someone whose behavior appears to be unfair – without necessarily
being a transgression – feels guilty even if it occurred by chance. For example, individ-
uals who consider they have been overrewarded (e.g., survivor of holocaust or fatal dis-
ease) feel guilty as they think they haven’t done anything special to ‘deserve’ the
‘reward’; they even blame themselves for having been ‘chosen’ (e.g., Wayment, Silver,
& Kemeny, 1993).

I feel guilty because I feel your pain: empathy

Empathy is the vicarious experience of someone else’s emotional state, which is different
from sympathy (Eisenberg et al., 1994). Individuals who are more empathic are more
altruistic and helping (Batson, 1991), and are more likely to experience guilt (Tangney,
1991). Based on these observations, Hoffman (1982) postulated that guilt can be aroused
through empathy and that both are prosocial. But empathy is a selective emotion: people
are more empathic and kind toward those who are akin to them (Batson, Duncan, Ack-
erman, Buckley, & Birch, 1981). Furthermore, as less secondary emotions (e.g., love,
hope, contempt, resentment) – which are perceived to be more human – are attributed

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Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors 445

to outgroup members, empathy will be aroused to a lesser extent in the presence of a suf-
fering outgroup member.

I feel guilty because I lost control over myself: self-control

The theory of self-control focuses more on intrapersonal than interpersonal conflicts.
According to this theory, guilt has self-control functions. Indeed, developmental studies
show that guilt proneness predicts low rates of disruptive behaviors in children. For
example, high guilt-prone children’s disruptive behavior is inhibited by memories of past
wrongdoings and anticipatory anxiety rather than by effortful control (i.e., the ability to
deliberately suppress dominant but undesirable responses) (Kochanska, Barry, Jimenez,
Hollatz, & Woodard, 2009). As Baumeister (1997; see also Baumeister et al., 2007)
argued, the expectation of suffering from guilt prevents people from committing guilt-
inducing behaviors. It is important to underline that this effect is not limited to interper-
sonal conflicts; it can also affect individuals who perceive themselves as failing to meet
intrapersonal standards (e.g., to follow dietary). Hence, self-gratification without justifica-
tion may induce guilt (e.g., Dahl, Honea, & Manchanda, 2003; Dhar & Wertenbroch,
2000; Giner-Sorolla, 2001). For example, pursuing hedonic pleasure without acceptable
justifications makes people feel guilty, because it is considered as being futile or even
immoral and contrary to long-term goals. As a consequence, individuals are motivated to
control their hedonic pursuits (Kivetz & Zheng, 2006; Nelissen & Zeelenberg, 2009;
Tangney, 1999, 2001). For example, after having been subliminally primed with adjec-
tives connoting guilt, subjects showed less self-indulgence toward their hedonic pursuits
(e.g., amount of money spent on CDs ⁄ DVDs) and more prosocial behaviors (e.g., helping
to formulate research questionnaires) than those who had been primed with sad adjectives
(Zemack-Rugar, Bettman, & Fitzsimons, 2007).

Guiltlessness is inextricably related to guilt, as two sides of a coin: (a) guiltlessness occurs
in circumstances which could also induce guilt; (b) guiltlessness can mainly be seen as the
result of a series of (conscious or unconscious) manipulations of the key elements such as
the severity and the consequence of the negative events in order to inhibit or remove
guilt; (c) guiltlessness may be considered as a substitution of guilt when the latter becomes
so overwhelming that it is detrimental for the individual or the ingroup. Thus guiltless-
ness may be interpreted as a calculated mental product which requires extensive efforts
and appears when it becomes too difficult for the person to bear guilt. As guilt is critical
in promoting prosocial behaviors, we will show in the following section how lack of
guilt (i.e., guiltlessness) can prompt prejudice, discrimination, and antisocial behavior in
interpersonal and intergroup relations.

Guiltlessness in interpersonal contexts

Guilt is not a hedonic emotion, thus, transgressors tend not to appreciate the behaviors
that induce guilt (Rubin & Shaffer, 1987). As Baumeister (1997) highlighted, guilt is such
a negative anticipatory emotion that people abandon the guilt-inducing behavior before
hand, in order to avoid experiencing that feeling. However, excuses and rationalizations
can also be prepared prior to committing guilt-inducing acts. According to Baumeister
(1997), perpetrators are prepared to feel guiltless, because they have already rationalized

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446 Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors

their behavior before it has actually been carried out. This might explain why accidents
induce more guilt than premeditated acts. In order to relieve guilt, multiple strategies are
often used. Responsibility denial, transgression reframing, and justifications all contribute
to decreased guilt.
The difficulties associated with making atonement are critical in determining whether
guilt will be aroused. It seems that when it’s hard to redeem the transgression and the
experience of guilt is unbearable, individuals choose not to feel guilty at all. Guiltlessness
is therefore considered as a calculated moral product in the minds of those who are
unwilling to feel responsible for their acts. High costs of reparation and atonement make
reestablishment of relationship hard, thus arousing guiltlessness, which in turn appears to
reduce approach behaviors. Berndsen et al. (2004) showed that the correlation between
guilt and approach motivation depends on the possibility and accessibility of reparation.
After being given bogus feedback of anti-Black brain-wave responses to pictures of Black
people, White subjects were led to believe that their brain-wave demonstrated some anti-
black pattern. As a result, they felt guilty and were less motivated to approach Blacks.
But if they were provided with reparation opportunities, they were more willing to help
Blacks and increased their approach motivation (Amodio, Devine, & Harmon-Jones,
Another important element which should be emphasized is that when it appears to be
impossible to atone for the harm, individuals are likely to readjust their perception of the
incident in order to relieve feelings of guilt. The theory of just world beliefs can success-
fully explain this cognitive reframing. Based on Lerner and Simmons’ (1966) theory, the
need to believe in a just world motivates people to treat victims differently according to
their level of injury and responsibility for the transgression (Hafer & Bègue, 2005). When
the victim has not behaved poorly and the suffering is relatively minor, people consider
that the victim does not deserve such adversity; they feel sorry for the unfortunate and
seek to compensate him or her. However, continuous suffering makes people begin to
consider the suffering as a deserved punishment or an exercise for the victim. This may
explain why irreparable damage does not necessarily lead to intense feelings of guilt, but
rather to guiltlessness.
Denial of responsibility is a convenient strategy used to reduce guilt. Individuals claim
to be unintentional (Baumeister, Stillwell, & Wotman, 1990), deny and diffuse responsi-
bility, disregard the harm (Freedman, 1970), and make external attributions (e.g., compli-
ance; Baumeister, 1997) in order to suppress or minimize guilt. Reframing the incident
seems to have an effect on both the valence (i.e., from guilt to guiltlessness) and the
intensity of guilt. If they are reminded of their salient similarities with the victim, people
tend to judge the transgression as more severe; but if they focus on similarities with the
perpetrator, the transgression is judged to be less severe (Gordijn, Yzerbyt, Wigboldus, &
Dumont, 2006). It has been found that by focusing on the rape victim’s own behavior,
people expressed less blame toward the assailant and more blame toward the victim
(Nario-Redmond & Branscombe, 1996). In the same way, reframing racial inequality as
Black disadvantage rather than White privilege reduces White American collective guilt
(Powell, Branscombe, & Schmitt, 2005). If the above reframing strategies do not work
sufficiently well, individuals may use just-world beliefs to convince themselves that the
victim deserves the harm (Newman, 1988) or can even benefit from it (Baumeister,
Thus, a number of perceived righteous justifications may serve to arouse guiltlessness.
Dehumanization stands out as a typical example of perceived righteous justification.
Dehumanization is defined as the perception of another individual as animal-like or

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Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors 447

automaton-like, thus bearing less human characteristics (Haslam, 2005; Haslam, Bain, Do-
uge, Lee, & Bastian, 2005). Dehumanization is negatively related to support for repara-
tion policies (Zebel et al., 2008), and experimental studies show that dehumanized
subjects are treated particularly harshly (Bandura, Underwood, & Fromson, 1975). By
dehumanizing the victim, reciprocity and other moral values are removed from consider-
ation, and harm toward dehumanized victims is believed to be legitimate. As a conse-
quence, guilt is not felt and reparation is unlikely to follow.
Other strategies have also been observed. For example, Baumeister (1997) suggested
that guilt is prevented by taking certain precautions such as focusing on the superficial
details instead of the intrinsic meaning of the harm, or reduced by getting drunk after a
transgression. Another important phenomenon is observed when transgressors receive
reinforcements through money or approval (Cialdini, Darby, & Vincent, 1973). This
appears to reduce guilt as well as prosocial behaviors.
Last but not least, defense and revenge serve as two effective justifications as they are
often the corresponding responses to previous offenses or injustice (Feather, 2006; Miller,
2001). These are viewed as the expression of the reciprocity norm which is the founda-
tion of human cooperation (Gouldner, 1960). In fact, vengeance is frequently related to
interpersonal aggression and delinquency and is often invoked to justify these transgres-
sions and crimes (McCullough, 2008).

Guiltlessness in intergroup contexts

As in interpersonal contexts, collective guilt is not always aroused by perceived injustice
or undeserved privilege over other groups. Individuals are inclined to forget about the
ingroup’s past wrongs (Branscombe & Miron, 2004; Sahdra & Ross, 2007) and tend to
feel guiltless in ambiguous conditions (Doosje et al., 1998). Due to the fact that they are
motivated to view their ingroup as positive and moral, they generally use strategies such
as harm minimization and denial or legitimization of ingroup past wrongs in order to
avoid collective guilt (Miron, Branscombe, & Schmitt, 2006; for a review, see Wohl
et al., 2006).
As in interpersonal contexts, one of the main categories of legitimizations is defense,
that is, the ingroup justifies acts which aim at reciprocating a past injustice carried out by
the target outgroup (Dodge & Coie, 1987; Staub, 1989; Wohl & Reeder, 2004). How-
ever, this effect is not limited to the target outgroup. For example, when being reminded
of the Holocaust, Jewish Canadians experience less collective guilt for ingroup aggression
against Palestinians than those who were not primed by the Holocaust (Wohl & Brans-
combe, 2008).
A second important category of legitimization concerns infrahumanization, which
refers to members of an ingroup perceiving their group as fully human while out group
members are perceived as les human and bestiales (Demoulin et al., 2004, 2005; Leyens,
Demoulin, Vaes, Gaunt, & Paladino, 2007; Leyens et al., 2000, 2001, 2003; Vaes, Paladi-
no, Castelli, Leyens, & Giovanazzi, 2003). Studies show, for example, that secondary
emotions are associated with the ingroup and primary emotions with the outgroup more
rapidly than the other two combinations (Boccato, Cortes, Demoulin, & Leyens, 2007;
Paladino et al., 2002; Viki et al., 2006). Primary emotions are emotions universally shared
by primates (e.g., anger, surprise, fear, joy, sadness, and disgust) whereas secondary
emotions are human-unique emotions labeled according to different social interactions
(e.g., sorrow, admiration, fondness, and disillusion). Compared with primary emotions,
secondary emotions involve more morality, cognition, and cultural variances. Thus,

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448 Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors

infrahumanization results in treating outgroups as subhuman (Leyens et al., 2001), entails

moral exclusion (e.g., Opotow, 1990), and less prosocial behaviors toward outgroup
members. For example, infrahumanization was related to unwillingness to help others
after Hurricane Katrina (Cuddy, Rock, & Norton, 2007) and less forgiveness between
conflicting groups as is the case between Catholic and Protestant Northern Irishmen
(Tam et al., 2007). Furthermore, outgroup members expressing secondary emotions –
which are more related to ingroup members – will receive less help from (Leyens et al.,
2000; Vaes et al., 2003) and be more avoided by the latter (Leyens et al., 2003).
As in interpersonal contexts, the difficulty to compensate the suffering leads to
increased guiltlessness (Wohl et al., 2006). As the harm appears to be more severe, collec-
tive guilt and reparation become more scarce (Berndsen & McGarty, 2010; Schmitt,
Miller, Branscombe, & Brehm, 2008).

Guiltlessness, personality, and ideology

To our knowledge, there is no systematic theory of guiltlessness. But, hitherto, research-
ers have documented several phenomena associated with guiltlessness. For examples,
guiltlessness may be the result of specific personality inclinations as well as acquired atti-
tudes. In this section, we will discuss (a) the evolutionary implications of guiltlessness, (b)
the types of psychopathologies and personalities related to interpersonal guiltlessness, and
(c) ideological conceptions which contribute to prejudice and intergroup guiltlessness.
Guiltlessness may serve evolutionary functions. Indeed, to lie or to cheat can benefit an
individual more than to cooperate and to help in the light of natural selection, provided
that the cheated will never be met again (Trivers, 1971). Antisocial personalities – charac-
terized by callousness and lack of remorse and empathy (e.g., Blair, Peschardt, Budhani,
Mitchell, & Pine, 2006; Frick & Morris, 2004; Frick & White, 2008) – are considered as
the full expression of this strategy (Mealy, 1995; Raine, 1993). Their intelligence, superfi-
cial charm, and lack of prosocial emotions (e.g., empathy, sympathy, shame, and guilt)
enable them to guiltlessly manipulate and exploit others (e.g., Raine, 1993).
Narcissism is another type of personality characterized by feelings of superiority and
deservingness (Emmons, 1984; Raskin & Terry, 1988) which appear to be positively cor-
related to guiltlessness, particularly when the ego has been threatened or hurt, as narcis-
sists will take revenge rapidly (Bushman, Bonacci, van Dijk, & Baumeister, 2003;
Campbell, Bonacci, Shelton, Exline, & Bushman, 2004; McCullough, Emmons, Kilpa-
trick, & Mooney, 2003). As Baumeister (1997) observed, guilt implies reciprocity which
is rarely experienced in the presence of an overwhelming ego.
Specific ideological variables are also good predictors of intergroup guiltlessness. For
example, justifications for discrimination which is caused by symbolic threat occurs when
egalitarianism (e.g., equality, social justice, and anti-discrimination; Moskowitz, Gollwit-
zer, Wasel, & Schaal, 1999) rather than meritocracy (e.g., discrimination against incompe-
tence; Vala, Lima, & Lopes, 2004) is salient (Pereira, Vala, & Leyens, 2009). It has been
shown that idealists avoid guilty feelings by convincing themselves that they are fighting
against evil (Baumeister, 1997). Among other examples are Right-Wing Authoritarianism
(RWA; Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992), which combines anxious submission to authori-
ties considered as legitimate and well-established (authoritarian submission), aggressiveness
against deviants (authoritarian aggression), and conventionalism (Altemeyer, 1998; Stone,
Lederer, & Christie, 1993), and Social Dominance Orientation (SDO; Pratto, Sidanius,
Stallworth, & Malle, 1994), which is a set of general attitudes and beliefs toward the pref-
erence for hierarchical intergroup relations (Pratto et al., 1994). The latter is driven by a

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Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors 449

conception of the world as a competitive jungle in which only the most adaptive individ-
uals survive (e.g., Duckit, Wagner, du Plessis, & Birum, 2002). These are two important
predictors of outgroup discrimination and its legitimization. RWA predicts people’s will-
ingness to both infrahumanize and support aggression against outgroups (e.g., Hodson &
Costello, 2007; McFarland, 2005). Correspondingly, people high in SDO are more likely
to perceive outgroups as less human (e.g., Esses & Hodson, 2006; Sidanius & Pratto,
1999), show discrimination against outgroups and dehumanize refugees compared with
individuals low in SDO (Esses, Veenvliet, Hodson, & Mihic, 2008; Roccas, Klar, & Liv-
iatan, 2006). This suggests that there are two modes of social identification which play
contrasting roles in collective guilt: glorification (i.e., to see the ingroup as perfect, to
deny any negative reference) is negatively related to collective guilt, whereas attachment
(i.e., to feel integrated in the group, to include ingroup in one’s self-concept) is positively
related to it. Glorification is similar to RWA and SDO in that it includes unconditional
submission to the ingroup and hierarchical thinking of intergroup relationships. Any neg-
ative suggestion about the ingroup will not be accepted by individuals high in glorifica-
tion, thus, such persons will not feel collective guilt. It is assumed, in the case of
intergroup conflicts, that people high in RWA and SDO will feel less guilty than others.

Guiltlessness and destructivity

Guiltlessness (at interpersonal or intergroup levels) is related to prejudice, discrimination,
transgressions, victimization, and atrocities. A few examples follow: (a) people high in
hostile sexism are more likely to deny the experience of positive secondary emotions in
women (e.g., compassion, hopefulness, and nostalgia) than those low in hostile sexism
(Viki & Abrams, 2003); (b) in pornography, women are dehumanized so that rape and
victimization are perceived to be more acceptable and legitimate (Check & Guloine,
1989); (c) infrahumanization is related to various negative affects and actions against out-
groups (for reviews, see Haslam, Loughnan, Kashima, & Bain, 2008; Leyens et al., 2000),
and dehumanization is related to slaughter and genocide in intergroup conflicts (O’Brien,
The antisocial and destructive nature of guiltlessness is due to its implicit presence in
daily life and ordinary issues and potential to stir up large-scale intergroup conflicts. As
discussed before, guiltlessness, especially in intergroup contexts, partly stems from stereo-
types and prejudice, and it is difficult for people to abandon their stereotypes. The latter
are destructive within the society and between societies. For example, it has been shown
that an implicit association between Blacks and apes is an automatic cognitive response
which interferes with further cognitions and promotes discrimination against Blacks (Goff,
Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008). Behaviors triggered by guiltlessness range from
low to high destructivity (Allport, 1954); they can evolve from trivial frictions to large-
scale conflicts. For example, prejudice can lead people to talk about and denigrate victims
(antilocution); they might then wish to reduce contact with these prejudiced groups
(avoidance); hence discrimination such as employment exclusion may follow; individuals
sometimes then start to physically attack these prejudiced groups, and, finally, extermina-
tion may end the story.
Sternberg (2003) defined various types of hate (e.g., from disgust to need for annihi-
lation) which ascend in degree of affect and motivation to act toward the rejected tar-
get. There can be multiple levels of moral exclusion, including psychological distancing
(perceiving others as objects or as non-existent), condescension (patronizing others as
inferior, irrational, and childlike), technical orientation (a focus on means–end efficiency

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450 Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors

and mechanical routine), and infrahumanization (Opotow, 1990). Infrahumanization

biases are universal and independent of status and conflicts (Demoulin et al., 2005; Ha-
slam, 2005; Leyens et al., 2003). According to Cuddy, Fiske, and Glick (2007), there
are mainly two dimensions in intergroup behaviors: active–passive (i.e., intensity), and
facilitation–harm (i.e., valence). Active behaviors are direct, explicit, overt, confronta-
tional, intense, and highly risky, whereas passive behaviors require less effort, are indi-
rect, covert, less intense, and avoidant (Ayduk, May, Downey, & Higgins, 2003).
Passive behaviors can also demonstrate a kind of discrimination such as neglecting oth-
ers’ welfare (Cuddy, Fiske, et al., 2007). By analogy, the manifestation of guiltlessness
could also be described as composed of two dimensions. Guiltlessness may manifest
itself as active harm against outgroups as well as passive facilitation such as avoiding
offering help.
There are certain situations which may prompt guiltlessness. Because specific circum-
stances induce or suppress the expression of discrimination (Crandall & Eshleman, 2003;
Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), prejudice is not always expressed publicly. The expression of
prejudice is contingent on social norms and personal beliefs which fuel justifications
(e.g., attributions, ideologies, stereotypes; Crandall & Eshleman, 2003). If discrimination
is socially acceptable or even desirable, there is no need to find justifications, but when
society does not encourage discrimination its expression will elicit tensions which will
motivate people to seek justifications (Pettigrew, 1958). For example, certain kinds of
situations appear to raise the risks of mass killing (Staub, 1999). During hard times,
people’s needs are frustrated, and they may become desperate to respond to these
needs, which may prompt them to resort to ruthless actions (Staub, 1996). Further-
more, when under threat, people tend to restore the positive image of the ingroup by
infrahumanizing outgroups (e.g., Branscombe & Wann, 1994) and become extremely
discriminating (for a meta-analysis, see Saucier, Miller, & Doucet, 2005). Thus, guilt-
lessness can induce aggression and be fueled by numerous excuses during sensitive peri-
ods of time.

Guiltlessness and moral disengagement

The reason why guiltlessness leads to antisocial and destructive behaviors may be due
to its association with moral disengagement which can be seen as the result of a deacti-
vation of self-regulatory processes inhibiting unethical behaviors (Bandura, 1986, 1999).
For example, highly morally disengaged children are prone to be more aggressive, have
more delinquent behaviors, and experience less anticipatory guilt and remorse (Bandura,
Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 1996; Bandura, Caprara, Barbaranelli, Pastorelli, &
Regalia, 2001; Bandura et al., 1975). Bandura (1999; see also Bandura et al., 1975) sug-
gested that the cognitive reframing (e.g., displacement of responsibility, diffusion of
responsibility, disregard or distortion of consequences, dehumanization, attribution of
blame to victims) of inhumanity into perceived humanity results in moral disengage-
ment. Thus, moral disengagement starts when extremely negative emotions are directed
toward dehumanized targets and results in discriminatory rejection (Bar-Tal, 2000):
infrahumanized victims are excluded from moral considerations, thus facilitating perpe-
tration of atrocities against them (Bandura, 1999; Bandura et al., 1975). At every stage
of the process mentioned above, guilt could be induced as people would not want this
to happen to any of their acquaintance, friend, relative, lover, or themselves. It is
reasonable to assume that if guilt is felt during the process it will interfere with moral

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Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors 451

Discussion and Conclusion

To date, many researchers have documented guilt-related phenomena while fewer have
contributed to documenting guiltlessness which can be considered as an important con-
struct related to immorality, prejudice, conflicts, and transgressions in interpersonal and
intergroup contexts. We argue that guilt is the acceptance of a mildly defective self,
whereas guiltlessness is the rejection of the unbearable distress of anticipatory guilt. It is
hard to feel guilty because one has to accept undesirable aspects of the self. Feeling guilt-
less requires much effort as various justifications must be generated and the individual has
to remain vigilant in guilt-suggesting situations. It has been highlighted that individuals
experiencing extreme negative feelings toward target groups adopt a simplistic and
dichotomous way of judging others and tend to focus solely on their hatred. Thus, dehu-
manization is incompatible with reasoning that involves considerations for others and for
the collective good (Sternberg, 1999).
As discussed above, the inability to feel guilty (e.g., antisocial personality) is associated
with the destruction of social goods and relationships. Without moral emotions, one can
act immorally. For example, patients with damage in the prefrontal cortex of the ventro-
medial area may exhibit the same level of moral reasoning as unimpaired persons, but not
feel guilt (Damasio, 1994; Damasio, Tranel, & Damasio, 1990). Guilt can thus be consid-
ered an important protection against the perpetration of aggressive behaviors (Baumeister,

Short Biographies
Hanyi Xu is mainly interested in theoretical and empirical research on prosocial behaviors
and social prejudice. She holds scholarship from China Scholarship Council and is now a
member of the Interuniversity Research Laboratory on Personality, Cognition, Social
Change. She is currently preparing her PhD thesis with Laurent Bègue at Grenoble Uni-
versity. Laurent Bègue works in the field of social psychology and mainly interested in
the consequences of beliefs and expectancies on prosocial and antisocial behaviors. He has
authored or coauthored many papers on those topics, including Psychological Bulletin, Brit-
ish Journal of Social Psychology, Journal of Personality, and Psychology, Crime and Law. He is
currently a professor at Grenoble University and member of the University Institute of
France. He is also the head of Interuniversity Research Laboratory on Personality, Cogni-
tion and Social Change. He has been a Visiting Professor at Brock University, Ontario,
and at Stanford University, California, and holds a PhD from Aix-en-Provence Univer-
sity. Rebecca Shankland is a lecturer at Grenoble University. She works in the field of
stress. She has authored or coauthored many papers on those topics.
Laurent Bègue works in the field of social psychology and in mainly interested in the
consequences of beliefs and expectancies on prosocial and antisocial behaviors. He has
authored or coauthored various papers on those topics, including Psychological Bulletin,
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,
Journal of Personality. He is currently full professor at Grenoble University. He is also
the head of Interuniversity Research Laboratory on Personality, Cognition and Social
Change. He has been Visiting Professor at Brock University, Ontario, and at Stanford
University, California, and holds a PhD from Aix-en-Provence University.
Rébecca Shankland is assistant professor, PhD in psychopathology Paris 8 university,
and works in the field of clinical psychology and is mainly interested in health prevention
and promotion, in particular psychosocial competencies and coping behaviors. She mainly

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452 Guilt, Guiltlessness, Prosocial, and Antisocial Behaviors

teaches in the field of psychopathology. She has published on coping and health promo-
tion and how educational pathways and programs can enhance these.

* Correspondence address: BP 47, 38040 Grenoble Cedex 9, France. Emails: hanyi.xu@upmf-grenoble.fr; xuhanyi

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Further Reading
Bishop, J., & Lane, R. C. (2002). The dynamics and dangers of entitlement. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 19, 739–758.
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thoughts and emotions. Emotion, 9, 549–553.
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Problems, 32, 251–262.
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Whiten, A., & Byrne, R. W. (1997). Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and Evaluations. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

ª 2011 The Authors Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5 ⁄ 7 (2011): 440–457, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2011.00364.x
Social and Personality Psychology Compass ª 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd