Lifestyle & Belief

Wracked with guilt? You may just have a highly-developed moral compass, new study finds


John Edwards exits the Federal Courthouse with his daughter Cate Edwards, and speaks to a crowd of reporters on June 3, 2011, in Winston Salem, N.C.


Steve Exum

How exactly can you tell if someone is honest? Easy: is the person in question usually wracked with crippling guilt?

Do they generally look as if they've been discovered beating the family dog or trafficking fallen women, or fighting on behalf of the Luftwaffe, even when they've done nothing worse in their lifetime then drive ever-so-vaguely over the speed limit?

Then they're probably a pretty moral person, according to a new Carnegie Mellon study that found the perennially guilty are less likely to act unethically then those who go through life with irritatingly unburdened consciences. You can read the full study here.

The study, titled "Guilt Proneness and Moral Character," found that guilt proneness is "a personality trait indicative of a predisposition to experience negative feelings about personal wrongdoing, even when the wrongdoing is private."

Read more from GlobalPost: Presidential psychopaths?

The researchers added this this particularly caricature-friendly personality trait is also defined by "the anticipation of feeling bad about committing transgressions rather than by guilty feelings in a particular moment or generalized guilty feelings that occur without an eliciting event."

Translation into people-talk: if you feel terrible when you just think about doing something bad, you're a lot less likely to actually go and do it.

The scientists used a metric amusingly titled the Guilt and Shame Process Scale, which is abbreviated as GASP, to test thousands of Americans on both their guilt-proneness and their propensity to act unethically in their daily lives.

The researchers concluded that guilty people have internalized moral values: for them, "public surveillance is not required to prevent moral transgressions; instead, their conscience guides them."

The GASP study revealed that people who scored high on guilt-proneness tests exhibited many mensch-like behaviors, including making fewer unethical business decisions, committing fewer "delinquent" behaviors, and were less likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors at work.

The science has it: if you want your kids to be good people, apply the guilty early and often—though as recent research into the curiously psychopathic personality traits of US presidents indicates, they may be a lot less likely to make it into the White House.