The study, published in last month's issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, used a series of five experiments to examine how people's susceptibility to guilt affected the likelihood that they'd enter into a new partnership. Participants first completed a questionnaire about how guilty or ashamed they would feel in various situations — for example, would they keep extra change if a salesclerk didn't notice?
Then, in each experiment, participants were given a task that required some expertise. For instance, a participant would be instructed to work on an accounting task with a partner who just so happened to be an expert in accounting. The first participant then got to decide whether they would be scored as a team or as individuals.
The results showed that participants who were more prone to feeling guilty were less likely to form partnerships — meaning collaborate and combine scores — with people they perceived to be more competent. The authors suggest this might be because the guilt-prone people were concerned they would get more than they gave, thus letting their partners down. They preferred to do poorly on the task on their own, rather than potentially disappoint their partners.
Of course, this study looked at business partnerships, not romantic ones. But, other studies have shown that guilt and shame, which are clinically different concepts but often overlap, can play huge roles in both starting and maintaining dating-type relationships, too. Feeling guilty can be a good thing (it makes us more likely to apologize and smooth things over), but only when we've actually done something wrong. Guilt trips for no reason — or just feeling guilty all the time — can cause a buildup of resentment. The effects of shame are especially pronounced for those dealing with anxiety disorders.
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