Guilt as a signal informing us of a threat to our morality

  • Yoshiya FurukawaEmail author
  • Ken’ichiro Nakashima
  • Ryota Tsukawaki
  • Yasuko Morinaga


Some studies have shown the possibility that people feel guilt not only due to interpersonal problems but also when experiencing threats to their own internal morality (e.g. Eskine et al. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(5), 947-950, 2013), whereas other studies have shown that guilt-induced behaviours can restore individuals’ sense of moral person (e.g. Gneezy et al. Management Science, 58(1), 179–187, 2012; Zhong et al. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(5), 859–862, 2010). These findings suggest that guilt can strongly reflect how much individuals deviate from what they perceive to be adequate moral person. Therefore, we proposed that guilt works as an alert system that signals people about threats to their morality. We used the Implicit Association Test (Greenwald et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1464-1480, 1998) to investigate if an individual’s moral self decreased in the situation where that individual felt guilt. Results showed that implicit moral self in the guilt condition was lower than that in the control condition when controlling for individual variation in moral self. Our findings provide a new perspective on the function of guilt and generate new hypotheses about the relationship between guilt and behaviours.


Guilt Implicit association test (IAT) Morality Moral self 



This paper was based partially on a doctoral dissertation submitted to the Hiroshima University by the first author and was supervised by the second author.


This work was supported by a Grant-in-Aid for JSPS Fellows (17 J05039) from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science to the first author.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare no other potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yoshiya Furukawa
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Ken’ichiro Nakashima
    • 1
  • Ryota Tsukawaki
    • 3
  • Yasuko Morinaga
    • 1
  1. 1.The Graduate School of EducationHiroshima UniversityHigashi-HiroshimaJapan
  2. 2.Japan Society for the Promotion of ScienceTokyoJapan
  3. 3.Department of Social and Clinical PsychologyHijiyama UniversityHiroshimaJapan

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