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Guilt by association?

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Recent evolutionary perspectives on guilt tend to focus on how guilt functions as a means for the individual to self-regulate behavior and as a mechanism for reinforcing cooperative tendencies. While these accounts highlight important dimensions of guilt and provide important insights into its evolutionary emergence, they pay scant attention to the large empirical literature on its maladaptive effects on individuals. This paper considers the nature of guilt, explores its biological function, and provides an evolutionary perspective on whether it is an individual-level or group selected trait. After surveying philosophical and psychological analyses of guilt, we consider which psychological mechanisms underlie the capacity to experience and act from guilt and whether they point to an emergence of guilt in early humans or to guilt having a longer phylogenetic history. Because guilt is a characteristically social emotion, we then examine its contemporary role in social and legal contexts, which may provide clues to its original biological function. Finally, we provide the outlines of two evolutionary explanations for guilt. We argue that group selection may have promoted the capacity to experience guilt, but that under certain conditions there may have been a positive individual selection force as well.
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Keywords: Emotion; evolutionary theory; group selection; guilt; shame

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Multidisciplinary Studies and The Center for Genomic Advocacy, Indiana State University, 2: Institute of Philosophy, KU, Leuven

Publication date: May 18, 2016

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