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Take the High Road to Avoid Guilt

Take the High Road to Avoid Guilt An interesting new study interweaves neurobiology with social science as researchers discover a link between brain activities and feelings of guilt.

Researchers expand on a basic human condition — on a daily basis, our social life places us in situations where we have to decide whether or not to cooperate with others.

Unlike other forms of life where cooperation is vital for food or shelter, the motivation that encourages humans to behave cooperatively is often not clear. Investigators believe they have found proof that that anticipation of the feeling of guilt can motivate us to behave unselfishly.

Moreover, researchers believe biology and physiology may underlie this guilt aversion-driven cooperation.

The findings are published in the journal Neuron.

“Imagine you order a drink in a coffee shop and, on receiving your bill, you notice a blank space provided to enter a tip. Though tipping in these circumstances is not necessarily the norm, many of us do so. What motivates this kind of behavior?” said senior study author Dr. Alan G. Sanfey.

“These informal situations are a mainstay of our social life, but there is surprisingly little experimental research examining what motivates this kind of cooperation and what brain structures underlie the behaviors of trust and reciprocity.”

Some previous research has suggested that we cooperate and reciprocate because it makes us feel good, the so-called “warm-glow” hypothesis, but Sanfey and colleagues examined whether the anticipation of guilt, a negative emotional state caused by a failure to live up to another’s expectations, could also play a role in motivating cooperation.

Researchers developed a model to assess the neural structures involved with a participant’s decision to honor someone’s trust and cooperate or the decision to violate trust for financial gain.

When participants’ decisions indicated a willingness to cooperate, they exhibited increased activity in the anterior insula, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), anterior cingulate cortex, temporal parietal junction, and supplementary motor area of the brain.

These areas have previously been shown to be involved in processing negative emotional states such as disgust or anger, as well as with the anticipation of pain or the experience of social rejection.

In contrast, when participants chose to not cooperate in order to make more money, they exhibited increased activity in ventromedial and dorsomedial regions of the PFC and the nucleus accumbens, areas known to be involved in the processing of reward.

“Our results demonstrate that these kinds of decisions often involve competing motivations. On the one hand we want to maximize our financial reward, but on the other we do not want to let others down,” said Sanfey.

“To return to our original example, our study suggests that one reason why we tip when it is not required is because signals originating in the insula and SMA remind us that the possibility of disappointing someone’s expectations will lead to future feelings of guilt, which in turn motivates us to do the right thing.”

Source: Cell Press

Take the High Road to Avoid Guilt

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Take the High Road to Avoid Guilt. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 12 May 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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