The wide variety of reasons for feeling guilty in adults: findings from a large cross-sectional web-based survey

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Background: Experiencing some sort of guilt is a common phenomenon in adulthood. As feeling guilty is usually unpleasant and may even lead to further negative psychological consequences like depression, the aim of this study was to provide comprehensive information on the reasons for such feelings in adults. Methods: A cross-sectional web-based survey was conducted between May 2019 and April 2020, collecting qualitative information on reasons for feeling guilty in n = 604 adults (mean/SD age = 45.3/16.4 years; n = 346/57.3% women, n = 255/42.2% men and n = 3/0.5% adults without identification with a particular gender). Stated reasons were inductively classified into (super-)/categories, and information on frequency and percentage (total, gender- and age-specific) for each of these (super-)/categories was provided. Results: Participants altogether stated 1515 reasons for feeling guilty that were classified into 12 supercategories and 49 categories. “Telling lies/withholding truth/information” followed by “Not spending (enough) time with family (members)/Not taking (enough) care of family (members)/not being there for family (members)” were the most frequent categories of reasons for feeling guilty in the sample. Guilt feelings explicitly referring to “religious beliefs” or a “subjectively perceived more general responsibility’” (e.g., for society, humankind, problems of the world), by contrast, were of minor importance. Male and female participants as well as participants of different ages showed similarities but also several differences in stated reasons for feeling guilty. Female participants, for example, more often experienced feelings of guilt related to family members, children and to some kind of general responsibility for the wellbeing of others, whereas male participants felt guilty more often because of some kind of misconduct/mistakes being made or because of difficulties in marriage/relationship. Conclusions: Adults can feel guilty for a wide variety of different reasons. Most reasons seem to be rather concrete (e.g., related to concrete negative self-attributions/flaws or to concrete social situations with concrete individuals). There also seem to be some age- and gender-related differences in reasons for feeling guilty.




Luck, T., & Luck-Sikorski, C. (2022). The wide variety of reasons for feeling guilty in adults: findings from a large cross-sectional web-based survey. BMC Psychology, 10(1).

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