Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Planet Guilt: How Men and Women Experience Regret

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Planet Guilt: How Men and Women Experience RegretMen Are from Mars, Women Are from Planet Guilt: How Men and Women Experience RegretI've lived with feelings of guilt for as long as I can remember-guilt about not calling my mother enough, guilt about not going to a good friend's wedding, even guilt about slamming my bedroom door on my brother's big toe when he was five. I try not to let my regret about my past missteps consume me, but every now and then it rears its ugly head just when I least want it to-say, right when I'm trying to fall asleep on a Sunday night. But even if I miss out on an extra thirty minutes of shut-eye on those occasions because I'm fretting about some birthday I missed or email I forgot to reply to, I'm glad I have a conscience-it's what allows me to learn from my mistakes. Plus, new research suggests that as a woman, I may just be wired to feel habitual remorse.

Read Why Getting Over Guilt is Good For You

What Is Guilt?
Simply put, guilt is an anxious gut feeling that arises in people when they believe they have done or are doing something wrong. Furthermore, it's such an uncomfortable sensation for most of us that it often causes us to seek redemption for our misbehavior. Guilt usually arises in situations in which we harm other people; our first reaction to their suffering is empathy, but as we accept responsibility for our part in causing their pain, that empathy turns into guilt.

Christian philosopher Gregory Koukl divides guilt into two categories: emotional guilt and moral/ethical guilt. Emotional guilt, he notes, is a more abstract feeling that sometimes occurs even when an individual has not committed a true wrong. Koukl defines moral guilt, which he posits as the "truer" kind, as someone's actual culpability for something she did; in cases in which that person feels regretful about her blame-worthy actions, she experiences emotional and moral guilt simultaneously.

Read Where Are Our Manners

Experts have long debated the exact psychological purpose of human guilt; according to Science Daily, some believe the "punitive feeling" it invokes causes "withdrawal motivation"-a desire to avoid repeating the same guilt-inducing action in the future. Others claim that guilt is a positive force that keeps society's moral standards intact; this perception is associated with "approach motivation." Still others, such as New York University psychologist David M. Amodio, are convinced that the line between these two seemingly opposing theories is actually blurred. In a 2007 study, Amodio concluded that guilt linked to withdrawal motivation sometimes becomes approach-motivated when the guilty individual is presented with a chance to redeem himself; in other words, people who experience negative feelings attached to guilt can transform them into productive behavior when they have an opportunity to right their wrong. But no matter what the root function of guilt, some research indicates that the extent to which people allow it to weigh on them depends on their gender.

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Planet Guilt
In a groundbreaking 2010 study at the University of the Basque Country in Spain, psychologists surveyed three age groups: 156 teenagers, 96 young people (ages twenty-five to thirty-three), and 108 adults (ages forty to fifty); each group was composed of an equal number of males and females. Led by Itziar Etxebarria, the researchers asked the participants about what situations caused them the most guilt and had them take interpersonal-sensitivity tests. Not only did the results reveal that the women in all three age groups experienced persistently intense guilt significantly more often than men, but these women also demonstrated much greater interpersonal sensitivity than did their male counterparts. Interestingly, the difference between men's and women's levels of intense habitual guilt was most pronounced in the forty-to-fifty age group, though the gap between the sexes in that demographic was narrowest in terms of interpersonal sensitivity.

According to Etxebarria, differing academic and socialization standards are primarily to blame for these discrepancies among his subjects; as he explained in Science Daily, "Educational practices and a whole range of socializing agents must be used to reduce the trend towards … guilt among women and to strengthen interpersonal sensitivity among men." That's a noble goal, but given its grandiose scope, it seems more likely that guilt levels will remain imbalanced between men and women-or at least that the sexes will continue to experience guilt in different ways, as a 2009 study in Toronto demonstrated.

Researchers asked 130 male and female participants to think of a past, current, or future relationship, and to then envision being unfaithful to that partner, both sexually and emotionally. Predicting that the men would feel guiltier about falling in love with someone else and that the women would be more remorseful about physical infidelity, the researchers were surprised to discover that just the opposite was true: all the women polled claimed that they would feel guiltier about falling in love with someone other than their partner than they would about sleeping with him, while the male subjects announced that having emotionless sex would cause them greater regret. Ironically, despite women's greater guilt about emotional dalliances, the female participants in the study declared themselves more likely to leave their partner if they discovered he had been sexually unfaithful.

In an attempt to explain these unexpected conclusions, the researchers proposed two theories: 1) that men may believe their relationships are more sexual than they actually are, and therefore place more weight on physical acts both with and outside their partnership, and 2) that women value the emotional aspects of their romantic relationships more than they do the physical, and thus feel guiltier when they commit any perceived transgression of the heart. The specific reasons notwithstanding, what's most important is that the men and women who took part in this study all demonstrated a well-developed conscience and a clear capacity for remorse.

Matters of the Heart
Unless you're a sociopath, it's virtually impossible to go through life without facing your conscience head-on once in a while. Now and again, we all hurt people we didn't mean to, say things we shouldn't have, and forget things we should have remembered. The overarching lesson from all these studies is not so much that men and women have different levels or different types of guilt, or even that different types of guilt exist in general-it's that feeling guilty is part of having emotions and being human. And even when memories of our biggest foot-in-mouth moments make us cringe, they also teach us how to move forward as kinder, more thoughtful people-and who wouldn't want that?

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