Pass it on

Emotion is a powerful aspect of the human mind — There’s no denying it.

It’s a very necessary force that should never be ignored, but understood in the context of healthy, rational thought. A lot of issues that people have with emotion often involve an inability to understand why it is felt or whether or not they should feel that way.

Guilt is one such terribly-powerful feeling:

In the first empirical work to examine both stated intentions and actual behavior, researchers argue that this sort of negative message — evoking both fear and guilt — is a far more effective deterrent to potentially harmful behavior than positive hopeful or feel-good messages.

“Making people feel good is less important than making people feel accountable when it comes to making wise decisions about self-protection,” explain Kirsten A. Passyn (Salisbury University) and Mita Sujan (Tulane University) in the March 2006 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. “Our work separates intentions from implementation and clarifies the role of emotions in this process.”

However, getting people to actually follow through on these intentions and change their behavior requires appeals combining fear and an emotion high in self-accountability, such as regret, guilt or challenge.

“[This research] suggests a new emotion-based approach to encouraging a wide range of health protection behaviors,” say Passyn and Sujan. “We illustrate the critical role of emotions in persuasion, especially for translating tendencies into action.” – ScienceDaily

That’s all fine and good.

The idea is that guilt is an anti-incentive of a sort, where your mental “at-peaceness” is basically held hostage by Guilt until you do something — anything — to appease it.

However, what happens when the monkeys don’t feel the blame by themselves; when they see Guilt as the penultimate reincarnation of Satan + Hitler, and themselves as the victim?

…and how do they avoid its tolls and the call to responsibility Guilt urgently asks of them?

Here’s some ideas on how to avoid Guilt, in the ever-popular list form:

  • Distraction – We have plenty of fun and worthless things to get caught up in — internet, drugs, porn, etc.
  • Tokens – Make it appear to yourself that you’ve corrected the issue somehow, and call it a day — donate to charity, pray, go buy “green” products, etc.
  • Blame something other than yourself (often the “most effective” choice)

It’s a disease of the moderns. Most of these items appear together in a person trying to beg and appease Guilt in a dishonest manner, and it’s totally obvious to people who are totally reconciled with their Guilt and their other emotions.

The ingenious and the manipulative can leverage one’s Guilt to their advantage, and at one’s expense. The recent “Go Green” phenomenon of the last decade can be attributed to simple Guilt, and a failure of the masses to examine why Guilt is being felt — it’s simply being acted upon so that it can go away.

Shifting the blame is probably the most effective and most common method at dishonestly appeasing Guilt. When you can shrug your shoulders and say “it wasn’t me,” you can avoid responsibility…

“I couldn’t get a job and pay my bills because of this economy”; “The dog peed on the carpet, I swear!”; “Someone else will clean up that trash I just knocked over.”

…you can avoid responsibility for the time being, at least, by passing on the blame.

Pass it on as much as you want, Guilt will always find a reason to come back and collect what you owe, since Guilt doesn’t take BS from anybody.

Despite this personifying metaphor, one obvious problem in deceiving Guilt is that you aren’t really deceiving Guilt to make Guilt go away, you’re deceiving yourself!

Unless you’re totally adept at lying to yourself, you’ll never avoid the conflict in your head, so you’ve got to reconcile it in the world around you by taking charge and solving the REAL issue. Guilt is here to make sure we rectify our behavior.

Why not do that instead of closing the blinds and yelling “I’m in the shower!” when Guilt comes a-knocking? It’s only a matter of time before Guilt gets pissed and finds a way in through the window and chases you upstairs into the bedroom, where you meet your bloody end.

It’s much easier to do it the other way: the normal way. By not passing it on, accepting the blame, and paying what you owe. Emotion and external reality finally become parallel, and you gain a clear conscience.

You may see Guilt as an enemy, but when Guilt is circumvented, bad things happen in Realityland. When Guilt is properly appeased, things become well again.

Don’t misunderstand the intent of this emotion. Don’t let others take advantage of your Guilt. Guilt really loves you, and whether you see that or not is entirely up to you.


  1. Chen says:

    Thanks Carl!! I won’t forget to make my monthly donation to starving African children this month! I feel so bad!

    1. Ryan says:

      repent, you sinner! for the failure of of africans to manage the remnants of the former colonies, which you presumably had no part in except only “theoretically”. also good stuff carl, “A lot of issues that people have with emotion often involve an inability to understand why it is felt or whether or not they should feel that way.” this really hit home, and i think the main reason it is not felt is due to the fact that “america” denies people their own soul. it makes everything into a plasticine portrait or a “facebook” image, duplicated millions of times and mimiced the world over. everything seems so repetative and people are just going through the motions, there is no “feeling”.

  2. Nicholas Marville says:

    “The idea is that guilt is an anti-incentive of a sort, where your mental “at-peaceness” is basically held hostage by Guilt until you do something — anything — to appease it.”

    I’d say this is the bottom line, really. Nowadays nothing makes an impression upon people. Guy goes to a party: “Oh man I’m not gonna drive because I might run over a kid or a family and then I’d feel guilty for the rest of my life.” At the end of the party: “Ah, screw it I just want to get home. Let’s start up the car it’s only a short ride.” Documentaries showing starving African kids don’t impress us anymore, either. Same thing for guiding college kids on a tour through a concentration camp. Or, “I would never cheat on my partner,” and all of that stuff. Bottom line, I don’t believe in guilt, and I am not convinced that it deters people.

    Woul you say a human were infinitely more powerful, effective, free, etc, without a sense of guilt? Unless of course you argue that guilt is a force that stops us from doing things which work against us in the long run. But then I’d say that’s a matter of intelligence and not of guilt. Guilt is a last resort the media nowadays tries to use to coerce people into behaving a certain way. At best, people show feelings of guilt to others without actually experiencing them, so that others will trust them, thinking they are conscientious and considerate persons.

    In the times of St. Augustine, a confession was a thing which touched one to the heart and was supposed to totally change a person. In Medieval times, there were ceremonies, rites and rituals that had a great impact upon people’s behaving. Even in the romance novelles by authors such as Dostojevski, you can read how much importance people placed upon codes of honour that it was regularly brought up in conversation. Nowadays, that’s totally missing from the (Western) world, and people are hardly impressed by anything.

    1. Ryan says:

      exactly, mr. marville, there was no “raskolnikoff” in the face of troy davis, i don’t think that our society respects self-actualization at all. our society is more concerned with oppression (its false guilt) than self-actualization, ex: WHY DID YOU DO THAT EVIL CRIME TROY? YOUR MORTAL TROY,etc. but instead its, whoa wait a minute guys i don’t think we should be too hasty here i mean we created the “environment of failure” that forced him to turn to crime.

      1. Ryan says:

        in a way Troy davis is not even important in the context of the crime, because the “guilt” is so overpowering it obfuscates the notion of justice.

        1. This is a great point. Troy Davis was a symbol of a perceived systematic wrong; to his supporters, it didn’t matter that he was guilty. Nor did it matter to fans of O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, Mumia Abu-Jamal or Hurricane Carter.

  3. I summarize this article as:

    It’s important to have the right kind of guilt, and not a false guilt.

    The same applies to government, religion, science, leadership and just about anything else. You need the right kind; that’s defined by context and quality. It’s not a question of type, which is defined by focal point.

  4. Chen says:

    Marketing is evil. We use it to manipulate people into purchasing products or services, without considering the broader effects. Guiltless people use these techniques to manipulate others, without care. Those manipulated end up desensitized, with a generic numb guilt – they still want to do what the TV says and have their actions appear socially acceptable, but if unwatched what is to stop the desensitized from doing what it takes to get ahead? If hypocritical manipulation is acceptable on the highest levels, what is to stop anyone from little slights against their neighbor? Do you feel more guilty for slighting someone to get ahead, or for the millions of starving souls in Africa? More guilty for scamming a client, or for destroying the environment and future by driving into work everyday? Guilty for being born white when there’s millions of poor minorities you need to donate to? A society breaks down.

    1. I feel guilty for my species not having its act together. This is something that people like me should be working to correct. Otherwise, we end up complicit.

  5. crow says:

    “Emotion is a powerful aspect of the human mind — There’s no denying it.”

    I am denying it.
    Because what you write is only true when one is a child. As most of us are. Maturity involves gaining control over emotion. Not that we see very much of that. But there it is: maturity. The missing attribute.

    That said: great essay. Applicable to almost all westerners. Endlessly manipulable, because of an inability to rein-in emotion.
    Endlessly gullible. Endlessly defensive. Endlessly aggressive. Endlessly without peace…
    And all because of rampant, uncontrolled emotion.

    Emotion can be tamed. Having done this, one has to wonder what use emotions are, anyway. One does not miss them. Everything one has heard about how essential emotion is, in order to be “human”, turns out to be not true.

    I do nothing that requires subsequent guilt, regret, or remorse. Nothing for which I feel I must later apologize for.
    I am responsible. I tread like an Indian in the forest: carefully, lightly, leaving scarcely a trace of my passing.

    You can do this too. It’s not difficult, once you realize emotions are at the root of almost every human failing.

    1. It’s not difficult, once you realize emotions are at the root of almost every human failing.

      Although I essentially agree, my version of your statement has a single modifier:

      It’s not difficult, once you realize that undisciplined emotions are at the root of almost every human failing.

      1. crow says:

        Fair enough.
        But I stand by the original.
        Emotions are weakness, like a flawed lens.
        Distorting what is, into what is not.
        A lens, corrected, is no longer what it was, when distorted. It faithfully transmits what is, whereas, flawed, it never could.
        Disciplined emotion is no longer emotion.
        It is reason.

        1. Decimator says:

          very nicely stated. Did you come up with that, if so, may I use it. Those are powerful words for guiding you men.

          1. Decimator says:

            Young men that is.

        2. Ryan says:

          discipline is the whole thing, without discipline you have america in all its quagmiric stupidity. discipline is how you catch a fish and how you finish the job, no matter ho menial. without dsicipline (don’t mistake it for fear, because that is what it is now) people are just pretending. you have to give them a nice shiney medal and a smart uniform, and some RESPONSIBILITY, no nanny state.

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