The feeling when you think you have done harm to someone. You blame yourself and cannot stop thinking about this.

You feel guilty when you did something that caused harm to someone, for which you hold yourself (partially) responsible1. For example, you can feel guilty when you break a precious vase at someone’s house, or if you accidentally tell the birthday girl about the upcoming surprise party in her honor.

Feeling guilty is often associated with moral transgression, i.e., committing a crime or a sin. However, it is important to distinguish feeling guilty (as an emotional experience) from being guilty (as a legal or moral judgment). Someone may have committed a severe crime and be tried as guilty, without ever feeling any guilt2. The opposite can also be true: a person can feel guilty when, rationally speaking, they haven’t done anything wrong and are not held responsible by anyone3. For example, imagine you invite a friend to come over, and on the way to your house she has a serious accident. Although no one blames you, as you had no way of knowing this would happen, you can nevertheless experience a great deal of guilt. When this happens, you basically mistake a causality – if you hadn’t invited her, she would still be alright – with a responsibility – that you could somehow have known or done something to prevent it4.

People who feel guilty often have the urge to undo or repair their wrongdoing, for example, by refunding the financial damage. If the damage is irreversible (e.g., if something unique has been destroyed), or if someone else’s trust has been irreversibly betrayed, the guilty person may instead try to atone for their wrongdoing, i.e., by punishing themselves. Thirdly, if someone feels guilty for doing something wrong that other people don’t know about, they will have an urge to confess what they did. In all three cases, the explanation seems that the guilt-feeling person wants to demonstrate that they are not a bad person, but merely a good person who did something bad.

In the comic, Murphy accidentally spills his lunch over a co-worker, ruining her outfit.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“Oh no, what have I done to you!”

“I’m really sorry, let me make it up to you.”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Guilt & Regret

Regret and guilt are both a reaction to the bad consequences of something you did (or didn’t do) earlier, and both involve a desire to undo this thing. For example, if you make a hurtful remark to a good friend, you can both regret the remark and feel guilty about it. The first difference is that guilt is almost always about harming others, whereas regret more often applies to unfortunate things that happen to ourselves. Thus, you can deeply regret buying yourself shoes that are too small, but you can’t really feel guilty about it. Secondly, guilt often involves a moral factor that is not present in regret. You feel guilt after you have done morally bad things, like stealing or physically hurting someone. Thirdly, in the experience of guilt you think more about the harm that you have done to others (the consequence), whereas in regret you focus more on the decision or action that lead to the bad outcome.

Guilt & Pity

Guilt and pity are both reactions to the misfortune of others, such as someone being in pain or financial problems. However, the relation you have to this misfortune is very different between the two emotions: If you experience guilt, you feel somehow responsible for the misfortune, which is not the case in the experience of pity. The confusion between these two emotions can for instance be observed if someone expresses that they are sorry for someone else’s loss, to which that person respond that it’s not their fault. The first person simply meant it as an expression of pity or sympathy, but the second mistook it for an expression of guilt.

Guilt & Shame

Guilt and shame are among the most-often confused emotions. This is understandable, as they seem very similar at their core: they are both emotions about our relations to other people that include a negative evaluation of ourselves. If someone does something wrong, like cheating on her partner, she may feel both guilty and ashamed. However, there are some important differences between the two emotions. First of all, guilt is an emotion about something you did (your actions), whereas shame is an emotion about who you are (your ‘qualities’)5. This may seem like an arbitrary difference in some situations – there seems little difference between thinking ‘I have cheated’, versus ‘I am a cheater’ – but it in other situations this difference is important. Most importantly, while guilt is always about your actions, you can feel ashamed about something that is not something you did, such as your appearance or the amount of money your parents make. Secondly, you can feel guilty about something that you feel responsible for, but that doesn’t reveal some character flaw. If you break something completely outside your own fault, you may feel guilty about the damage you caused the owner, but you arguably won’t be ashamed. Another difference is that shame is sometimes regarded as a ‘social emotion’, because it requires other people, whereas guilt is more of a ‘personal emotion’, in which you have violated your personal standards of what is harmful and wrong. Interestingly, research shows that although the experience of these two emotions is somewhat similar, their effect on people’s behavior can be very different. Shame is associated with a tendency to hide the shameful truth, or to get away from the people who know about it (‘trying to cover it up’). Guilty people, on the other hand, have a tendency to confess their wrongdoing (‘getting it off their chest’) and to atone for it (‘coming clean’)6.

Sources and further reading