We're responding to Jessica Broitman's reference to guilt, and her request for a brief description of some of our research related to guilt. We are restating Weiss's (Control Mastery) theory here, for those who are jumping in and might not be familiar with it.
For the past five years we have been engaged in a program of empirical research designed to test certain aspects of Weiss's interpersonal cognitive theory of psychopathology, with its emphasis on guilt. In contrast to the traditional Freudian view in which guilt is related to unconscious hostility (often viewed as arising from oedipal conflicts, which many of us do not consider a viable construct), the interpersonal perspective views guilt as deriving from empathy, altruism, and the need for connections. According to this view, interpersonal guilt is adaptive in its role in the maintenance of social relations, however, it may become maladaptive when it is excessive and irrational, and lead to inhibitions and psychopathology.
Weiss's theory emphasizes interpersonal guilt as a primary emotion associated with psychological problems. According to Weiss (1993), psychopathology is derived from pathogenic beliefs that develop in response to disturbing childhood experiences. Pathogenic beliefs warn people that if they attempt to pursue normal developmental goals, they will harm either themselves, or someone they love. Pathogenic beliefs that predict harming others may give rise to excessive guilt. People suffering from pathogenic beliefs may find that even considering normal pursuits leads to guilt. While guilt that arises from the rules regulating normal social interactions serves to maintain relationships between people and is highly adaptive, guilt that is linked to pathogenic beliefs is often maladaptive.
Our recent empirical studies examined Weiss's emphasis on guilt using a new theoretically-based measure, The Interpersonal Guilt Questionnaire (IGQ)(O¹Connor, Berry, Weiss, Bush, & Sampson, in press). This measure includes subscales of survivor guilt, separation guilt, omnipotent responsibility guilt, which assess the fear of harming others, and self-hate, which relates to a sense of badness, and is theoretically linked to interpersonal guilt.
Survivor guilt is characterized by the pathogenic belief that pursuing normal goals and achieving success, will cause loved ones to suffer and feel inadequate. People suffering from survivor guilt believe that their success causes other's unhappiness. Separation guilt is characterized by the pathogenic belief that to separate or differ from loved ones will harm them and constitutes an act of disloyalty. Omnipotent responsibility guilt involves an exaggerated sense of responsibility and concern for the happiness and well-being of others. Self-hate is an extreme form of guilt that occurs in compliance with punishing or neglectful parents. It is related to interpersonal guilt in that people accept this negative view of themselves in order to maintain a connection to their parents.
The IGQ was administered to 6 samples of college students (631 subjects) along with measures of psychological symptoms, depression, and other problems such as jealousy, perfectionism, and pessimism (Herbold, 1996; Menaker, 1995; O'Connor, 1995; O'Connor, Berry & Weiss, submitted; Webster, 1996). In addition, the IGQ and a depression inventory were administered to 110 drug-addicted subjects in recovery (Meehan, O'Connor, Berry, Weiss, Morrison, & Acampora, 1996).
In each study interpersonal guilt was significantly correlated with psychological problems. The clinical sample was significantly higher in guilt than a non-clinical community sample. In each sample survivor guilt and shame were highly correlated.
Contrary to the recent emphasis on the role of shame as opposed to guilt in psychopathology, these studies indicate that some types of guilt may be more significantly correlated with many symptoms than is shame and that some types of guilt are more maladaptive than others.
Survivor guilt, worrying about being better off than other people, was found to be detrimental to all aspects of emotional well-being, whereas omnipotent responsibility guilt, worrying about making others happy, was only associated with one measure of depression. Survivor guilt and its associated pathogenic beliefs is often overlooked in the clinical setting because it may be unconscious when patients first present their problems. Patients may describe themselves as deficient, a symptom which equates with shame and self-hate. Weiss has suggested that such patients are often struggling unconsciously with survivor guilt, and that shame may function to reduce or conceal this guilt. These studies suggest that patients' increasing understanding of survivor guilt may reduce their shame and self-hate.
This past spring we completed another study of about 200 subjects relating survivor guilt to submissive behavior and introversion (an indirect measure of fear of being put down), in the context of a discussion of evolutionary theory. Fear-based submissiveness, that is submissive behavior in the face of agonistic behavior from a more dominant person, has been established in the literature. We found there was also a guilt-based submissiveness, that is submissive behavior resulting from a concern about being better off than others. A review of anthropological literature suggests that survivor guilt is a cross cultural pheonomenon and that antecedents of survivor guilt may be found in higher primates, and particularly in chimpanzees and bonobos. We propose that survivor guilt has been maintained in human populations through the mechanism of natural selection at several levels; through kin selection and inclusive fitness, through reciprocal altruism, and also through group selection. We are currently preparing this study for publication.
Herbold, J. (1996). Perfectionism, shame and guilt in adult children of alcoholics. Western Psychological Association, Poster presentation, April 1996.
Meehan, W., O'Connor, L. E., Berry, J. W., Weiss, J., Morrison, A., & Acampora, A. (in press). Guilt, shame and depression in clients in recovery from addiction. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 28(2).
Menaker, A. (1995). The relationship between attributional style and interpersonal guilt. Doctoral Dissertation, California School of Professional Psychology, Alameda CA.
O'Connor, L. E. (1995). Survivor guilt and depression. Paper presentation as part of Workshop at American Psychological Association, Division 39, meetings Santa Monica, CA, April 1995.
O'Connor, L. E., Berry, J. W., Weiss, J., Bush, M., & Sampson, H. (in press). Interpersonal guilt: development of a new measure. Journal of Clinical Psychology.
O'Connor, L. E., Berry, J., & W., Weiss, J. (submitted). Interpersonal guilt and psychopathology.
Webster, R. (1996). Interpersonal guilt and jealousy: are there two types of jealousy? Western Psychological Association, Poster presentation, April 1996.
Weiss, Joseph (1993). How Psychotherapy Works. New York, Guilford.