Can guilt be good?

By Catherine Jones
Can guilt be good?

This weekend we’ve been treated to not one but two guilty apologies. First up was David Laws, now former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who decided to leave his post after a story in the Telegraph on Saturday reported that over the best part of a decade he’d claimed £40,000 in rent that he’d paid his partner.

Then the Duchess of York, looking suitably harrowed, took her seat opposite Oprah for an exclusive interview in which she tried to explain how it came to be that she was caught on camera asking for half a million in exchange for introducing a businessman/undercover News Of The World reporter to her ex, Prince Andrew.

Apart from the fact that both have appeared on TV this weekend to confess, Laws and the Duchess don’t have an awful lot in common — except that both are probably feeling an especially miserable cocktail of emotions this week, including guilt.

Psychologists have taken great interest in the emotion of guilt, believing it serves some especially useful functions. Psychologist Dr Roy Baumeister, who penned one of the most cited reports on the topic, believes it can help us bolster our relationships with others.

When we’re guilty we’re more likely to pay attention to our partners’, friends’ and family’s needs and consider their feelings, he explains. This in turn promotes closeness. Furthermore, genuine feelings of guilt help neutralise a potentially hostile situation while the victim will, in turn, feel less suffering.

In short, guilt, says Baumeister, is all about reinforcing our social bonds. It motivates us to apologise and make amends but also reflect on what has happened and perhaps look at ways to change our behaviour. When Laws resigned on Saturday, he said: ‘I have pursued a political career because of my sense of public duty, but I have too often put this before the interests of those I love most. It is time to redress the balance.’

They may be good for you and your relationships, but guilty feelings are never pleasant, so Laws, the Duchess and anyone else who was forced to explain themselves this weekend, might find a crumb of comfort in the fact that Baumeister’s study also revealed that guilty confessions have been shown to increase calm and improve health in the confessor.

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