Wikibooks:Power in Guilt



Guilt can be defined as doing something which breaks legal or moral laws[1]. However, the feeling of guilt does not always overlap with factual guilt. The study of guilt is difficult, insofar as there are power conflicts between the social construction of guilt and its biological basis. This WikiBook will focus on the perception of guilt through the perspective of sociology of religion, law, evolutionary psychology and biology.

Socio-theological Perspective


The Catholic Church gained prominent political power in the Middle Ages (5-15th century)[2], which led to it having a profound influence on both legal and social conceptions of what actions an individual should feel guilty about and repent for; an analogous argument may be made for the Eastern Orthodox Church.[3] This power persists today, and Christian notions such as guilt, sin, penance, and repentance remain socially powerful not just for believers, but also for non-believers.

Religious guilt and social powerː homosexuality

Christianity remains a prominent religion today, with its 2 billion followers[4] projected to rise to nearly 3 billion by 2050[5]. Despite some data showing, for example, lack of religious guilt in teenagers[6], there does exist contrary evidence that religion does contribute to feelings of guilt[7], and one may look at homosexuality as an example of Christian notions of sin affecting people on a great scale. While a lot of denominations of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church do not consider being homosexual a sin, committing homosexual acts is still viewed as such[8][9]. This has led to complications for the legalisation of gay marriage.[10] Religious homosexuals also have to seek ways to reconcile two core parts of their identity, and if they have very internalised religious principles, they can "feel extremely guilty and fear eternal condemnation".[11]

Religious guilt and social powerː non-theological doctrine motivation

The church has historically had to tailor its doctrines to economic and political factors to retain its power. This can be seen in the notions of what constitutes penance or pardoning of sin. Normally, would be expected to undergo "...some penalty as an expression of sorrow for sin or wrongdoing"[12]. The introduction of indulgences (giving money to the Catholic Church to receive partial pardon of sins), however, was encouraged by Pope Innocent III in order to finance his Crusade projects[13]. A similar, more recent case may be found in late 20th-century Russia in the building of the church Our Lady of Kazan[14] - an entrepreneur was convinced by a priest to contribute heavily to the construction process through being told this would constitute penance.


Religion is a powerful factor that influences people's perceptions of guilt, but it is itself influenced by other key factors, like politics and economics. Its definitions of guilt impact both believers and non-believers. It seemingly gives power to the individual through their acts to repent, but it also disempowers them in that it enforces what they should be guilty about.


Legally speaking, there is a distinction between legal guilt and factual guilt. Factual guilt is concerned with the plain fact whether the suspect committed a crime, i.e. broken the law[15], or not. However, in order to convict someone of a crime, it needs to be proven. Therefore, someone can be factually guilty, but without proper evidence, they would be considered legally innocent[16].

The Case of the Norfolk Four


On July 7, 1997, in Norfolk, Virginia, eighteen-year-old Michelle Bosko was raped and murdered in her apartment. Her body was found by her husband the next day. The first suspect, Danial Williams, confessed after eight hours of interrogation and threats of the death penalty. However, his DNA did not match the crime scene’s and police turned to Joseph Dick, Jr. He confessed under similar circumstances, but his DNA was not a match either. The pattern continued until, eventually, seven men were accused of the crime, four of which confessed to the police. Even after the actual killer, Omar Ballard, confessed to having committed the crime alone, the four suspects were still charged and the last ones only exonerated in 2016[17].

Surprisingly, ¼ of wrongful convictions involve false confessions. This has mostly to do with the psychological tactics police officers use to get confessions via the power imbalance between suspect and interrogator. Often, police officers are over-confident in their ability to tell apart those who are lying or not[18]. Together with long interrogations, threats of harsher punishments, or even promises of leniency, coupled with the provision of false evidence, they are able to get confessions out of innocent victims, either because they feel like they will get convicted either way, or they might have become convinced of their own guilt[19]. This conviction can go as far as apologising to the victim's family for a crime one did not commit, as was the case with Joseph Dick[20].

The suspect's changed perspective on their own guilt makes it even more difficult to study. Confessions are not reliable, in or outside the court of law, if the suspects themselves are not sure of the facts anymore. The determination of truth, therefore, needs to rely more on biological evidence than the malleable memory of the suspects.

Biology / Evolutionary Psychology


The neurological root of guilt as a withdrawal emotion remains somewhat ambiguous. However, studies comparing the brain circuitry of individuals with psychiatric disorders against those without such conditions furthered research on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and its interactions with the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) as the determinant in guilt-specific emotion. A correlation could be drawn between the increased frequency of antisocial behaviour, seemingly void of such mediating emotions as guilt, and the dysfunction of the OFC and vmPFC regions of the brain. With such dysfunctions arising from both injury and developmental abnormalities, it could be argued that the influence of social pressure on guilt as a withdrawal emotion is lesser than the constraints set by an individual’s physical anatomy. Even so, any external, social influence must be mediated via such structures and so is susceptible to their, albeit ambiguous, biological influence.

We can also study the role of guilt from an evolutionary perspective, to determine how its development provides not only for the guilt-prone individual but also their wider community. Crucially, guilt can be seen as an indicator of altruism whereby an individual feels shame for an action that is deemed to be selfish. The individual’s decision to display their shame to others in the form of guilt suggests a priority for the well-being of the group as a collective whole, rather than themself as an individual. Therefore, it could be argued that guilt promotes social cohesion by apparently condemning individualistic actions that do not serve to benefit the group. However, such a socially driven perspective ignores the individualistic benefits that are fundamental in allowing the evolution of guilt via natural selection. Almost hypocritically, guilt appearing to favour altruistic social cohesion is, in fact, fundamentally rooted in its benefits for the guilt-prone individual as an evolutionarily stable-strategy. The most frequent conclusion is that guilt serves to mediate the behaviour of an individual against transgressive actions, to establish a stable role within their social structures and so optimizes their likelihood of surviving to reproduce.


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  7. Walinga, P., Corveleyn, J., & Van Saane, J. (2005). GUILT AND RELIGION: THE INFLUENCE OF ORTHODOX PROTESTANT AND ORTHODOX CATHOLIC CONCEPTIONS OF GUILT ON GUILT-EXPERIENCE. Archiv Für Religionspsychologie / Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 27, 113-135
  8. "Catechism of the Catholic Church – Part 3 Section 2 Chapter 2 Article 6", retrieved on 3rd December 2019.
  9. "Holy Synod – Encyclicals – Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life", retrieved on 3rd December 2019.
  10. "Same-sex marriage", article in the Encyclopædia Britannica, published on 27th September 2018, retrieved on 3rd December 2019.
  11. Pietkiewicz, I. and Kołodziejczyk-Skrzypek, M. (2016). Living in Sin? How Gay Catholics Manage Their Conflicting Sexual and Religious Identities. Archives of Sexual Behavior, [online] 45(6), pp.1573-1585. Available at: [Accessed 7 Dec. 2019].
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