Survivor Guilt, Submissive Behavior, and Evolutionary Theory
Lynn E. O'Connor and · 5/25/97 at 7:08 PM ET
Survivor Guilt, Submissive Behavior, and Evolutionary Theory
Lynn E. O'Connor and Jack W. Berry
The Wright Institute, Berkeley and The San Francisco Psychotherapy Research
The San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute and The San Francisco
Psychotherapy Research Group
The authors wish to thank Paul Gilbert for his tremendous help in the
development of this research and paper. A full report on this theoretical
perspective and recent research is currently being prepared for publication.
Survivor Guilt, Submissive Behavior, and Evolutionary Theory
In prior research submissive behavior has been studied in relation to social comparison theory and evolutionary theory and has been understood to be associated with a fear-based self-protective response to an agonistic interaction with a higher ranking person (Gilbert, Allan & Trent, 1995).
Submissive behavior has been viewed as a person's response to a threat from a more dominant or aggressive person, as a means to reduce the threat and protect the self from injury (Scott, 1965; O'Connor, 1970; Henley, 1976; Lorenz, 1981; Chance, 1980,1988; Trivers, 1985; Gilbert 1989, 1992; Trower & Gilbert, 1989; Harper, 1985; Hinde, 1987; Price, 1967; Price & Sloman, 1987; Price, Sloman, Gardner, Jr., Gilbert and Rhode, 1994; Sloman & Price, 1987;Sloman, Gardner, & Price, 1989; Gilbert, 1992; Sloman, Price, Gilbert, &
Gardner, 1994 ).
In a recent study we introduced another psychological mechanism frequently associated with submissive behavior, that is the subtle and often unconscious type of guilt associated with believing that one is better off than others, often referred to as "survivor" or "outdoing" guilt.
This is the kind of guilt that we tend to feel when we hear that a friend is suffering from a misfortune such as a serious illness, a loss of a job, or when we see a homeless beggar on the street. In a study of 199 subjects, we
found this type of guilt to be significantly associated with submissive behavior.
In addition to being a response to an external threat, submissive behavior may also be a strategy that a people use when they are suffering from survivor guilt towards others, when they feel better off and worried about making others feel bad, simply by comparison. In order to make things more equal, people suffering from survivor guilt may in some instances behave submissively and thus it may serve to preserve a degree of equality.
Individual variations in proneness to survivor guilt may serve to promote and support social organization, in that some individuals are more comfortable being better off than others, and thus are more able to tolerate leadership positions while others, with a higher proneness to guilt, are more comfortable as followers. In this way survivor guilt may also serve to contribute to the maintenance of peaceful social organization. We suggest that survivor guilt is a psychological mechanism that has been maintained in human populations through natural selection, and may be explained by inclusive fitness theory (Hamilton, 1964), reciprocal altruism (Trivers,1971; 1985; Axelrod & Hamilton, 1981), or selection at the level of the group. Group selection has recently re-emerged as a legitimate factor in
evolutionary theory, to be considered along with other levels of selection (Wilson, 1977; Wilson, 1989; Wilson & Sober, 1994; Caporael & Brewer, 1995;Brewer & Caporeal, 1990), and survivor guilt may represent a viable
adaptation to group living.
Our focus on survivor guilt began with the clinical focus found in the interpersonal cognitive theory of psychopathology and psychotherapy developed by Joseph Weiss (often referred to as Control Mastery Theory), and tested
empirically by Weiss, Sampson and the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research group (Weiss & Sampson, 1986; Weiss, 1993). According to Weiss,psychopathology stems from pathogenic beliefs that arise in response to traumatic childhood experiences. These beliefs warn people that if they attempt to pursue some normal developmental goal, they risk harming themselves or someone they love. While in many psychological theories the emphasis is on the fear of harm to the self, Weiss proposed that often the most inhibiting pathogenic beliefs relate to the fear of harming others; and
these altruism-based beliefs are most often quite unconscious. He suggests that people develop severe pathogenic inhibitions in response to these beliefs predicting harm to others, in an effort to avoid or minimize guilt.
For example, a person who in childhood experiences her mother as weak and unhappy may develop the pathogenic belief that if she is strong and confident it will make her mother --or by generalization, others-- feel inadequate,
simply by comparison. This person may then --in compliance with this pathogenic belief-- find herself exhibiting submissive behaviors, as if she were weak, in order to avoid feeling guilt. Weiss has suggested that many psychological problems and symptoms result directly from these types of
pathogenic beliefs, and particularly those that lead to a high proneness to survivor guilt.
In order to investigate this focus on interpersonal guilt, described as the fear of harming others, and particularly on survivor guilt and its role in the development of psychopathology, we constructed a measure of guilt, the
Interpersonal Guilt Questionnaire (IGQ-67) , with subscales of survivor guilt, omnipotence guilt, separation guilt and self hate (O'Connor, Berry,Weiss, Bush and Sampson, 1997). We then conducted a series of studies involving over 800 subjects and found that interpersonal guilt was
significantly correlated with most psychological problems, including depression and other symptoms found on measures of psychopathology, and more general personality problems such as pessimism, perfectionism, and jealousy(O'Connor, Berry, Weiss, Bush and Sampson, 1997; O'Connor, 1995; O'Connor,
Berry, Weiss, Herbold, Meehan, Webster, 1996; O'Connor, Berry and Weiss,submitted). Our investigation supported our emphasis on guilt, and in contrast to the contemporary focus on shame, in many cases we found that survivor guilt was more significantly associated with emotional problems than
A review of the literature revealed antecedents to survivor guilt in higherprimates, and particularly Chimpanzees and Bonobos. While we do not know if other primates actually experience guilt, there is evidence for the tendency to share material resources with others (de Waals, 1989; 1996; Boesch & Boesch, 1989; Boesch, 1994; Hohmann & Fruth, 1993; Goodall, 1986; Kuroda,1984; Itani, 1988; Itani, 1984; Stanford, Wallis, Mpongo, & Goodall, 1994).De Waals (1996) and others have described food sharing --both in the wild and in laboratory conditions (Nissen & Crawford, 1936; D'amato & Eisenstein,1972) -- with food going from those who have to those without. This type of
behavior was not found in lower primates, suggesting that survivor guilt may be a more recent behavioral adaptation to group living. In higher primates a proneness to guilt and especially to survivor guilt may be a psychological
mechanism that provides the proximate motivation for this sharing behavior, while the overall adaptive motivation may relate to inclusive fitness,reciprocal altruism and group selection.
A cross cultural review suggests that a proneness to survivor guilt may be prevalent or even universal among people, and may be more conscious and integrated into social behavior in the equalitarian hunter and gatherer
societies, than in most western industrialized societies (Woodburn, 1982; Turnbull, 1968; Service, 1966; Power, 1988, Itani, 1988; Boehm,1993).
In our recent study linking survivor guilt to submissive behavior we administered the Interpersonal Guilt Questionnaire (IGQ-67) (O'Connor, Berry, Weiss, Bush and Sampson, 1997), the Submissive Behavior Inventory (SBS:
Gilbert, Allan, & Trent, 1995), the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire-Revised(Eysenck & Eysenck, 1994) and the Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (Hollon &
Kendall, 1980) to a sample of 199 college students. The results of our study demonstrated that submissive behavior was associated with survivor and omnipotence guilt, as well as with the fear of put-downs as measured indirectly by the extraversion subscale of the EPQ- Revised. A principal
components analysis was calculated on the correlation matrix of scores on submissive behavior, survivor guilt and extraversion. These results support our hypothesis that there may be two motivational states related to
submissive behavior; the fear of harm to the self as it has been describe in prior studies, and the fear of harm to another, or guilt-based submissive behavior. In submissive behavior mediated by survivor guilt, a person may
behave submissively in order to reduce their feelings of being better off than someone else, rather than to reduce the aggression of what they perceive to be a more powerful person. In this case the danger is internal, that isguilt-related anxiety. In both cases the submissive behavior represents an inhibition on assertive or aggressive behaviors, in part coming from within. These results support the existence of both guilt (or other) based and fear (or self) based submissiveness.
This study has possible clinical relevance. When clients exhibit submissive behaviors, it might be important to ascertain whether they are submissive in response to an unconscious worry about being better off than
others, or if they are submissive in response to fear of someone higher than themselves. This suggests that a case-specific approach may be useful. In the case of fear/self-based submission, it might be most important clinically
to provide very specific and reality based discussion of their concrete situation, with a willingness to engage in problem solving techniques. If a patient's submissiveness is guilt/other-based, it might be more effective to help them to become more aware of their worries about surpassing other people and the inhibitions derived from these concerns. The attempt to understand survivor guilt in the context of evolutionary theory is consistent with the results of this study. A further review of
anthropological and biological literature, as well as further empirical investigations with human populations are indicated.
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