Thursday, 15 October 2015

Guilt-prone people are highly skilled at recognising other people's emotions

It's not pleasant to feel perpetually that you're responsible for mishaps and screw-ups, but some people do. Psychologists recognise this as a distinct trait, which they call "guilt-proneness" and now they've discovered that it tends to go hand in hand with an enhanced ability to recognise other people's emotions, at least from their facial expressions.

For the new study published in Cognition and Emotion, Matt Treeby and his colleagues asked 363 people (mostly students; average age 27) to say how they'd feel in 11 hypothetical negative scenarios. For example, one involved making a big mistake on a work project. From the range of answers available, participants who said they'd think "I should have recognised the problem and done a better job" were considered to have shown evidence of guilt-proneness. Another answer participants could choose was "I would feel like I wanted to hide", and answers like this were taken as a sign of shame-proneness as opposed to guilt-proneness. Although guilt and shame sound similar, the latter is associated much more with uncomfortable thoughts about the self ("what does this misdemeanour say about me?") whereas guilt is much more focused on the act itself ("how could I have done that?"). Other response options signalled detachment or lack of concern: "Well, nobody is perfect".

Next, the participants completed an online test that involved looking at photographs of actors displaying different facial expressions of emotion with varying intensities. The participants' challenge was to label each emotion correctly as either happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, anger or shame.

The key finding was that guilt proneness tended to correlate with performance on the emotion-recognition test. Guilt-prone people performed better overall across the different emotions, and they also showed extra sensitivity to recognising low intensity emotions. It's not clear from this research whether being sensitive to other people's emotions contributes to making someone guilt prone, or if instead being guilt-prone leads one to pay more attention to people's emotions, and get more practice at recognising them. Either way, it's an intriguing finding that complements past research showing that guilt-prone people tend to report better than usual psychological adjustment, to avoid anti-social behaviour and have good relationship skills.

The story for shame-prone people was not so rosy. Overall, shame proneness was not related to emotion recognition ability, although there was some evidence that it actually correlated with a poorer ability to recognise other people's happy facial expressions. This result also fits with previous research that's shown shame-prone people tend to have poor empathy skills.

The study is not flawless – for example, the facial stimuli were acted and static and in real life we rely on many different cues to emotion, including body language and tone of voice. However, it's a curious finding that might help guilt-prone people understand that their guilt-proneness is not their fault: it's quite likely a side-effect of their being so well-attuned to other people's emotions.


Treeby, M., Prado, C., Rice, S., & Crowe, S. (2015). Shame, guilt, and facial emotion processing: initial evidence for a positive relationship between guilt-proneness and facial emotion recognition ability Cognition and Emotion, 1-8 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2015.1072497

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest. Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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