Habitual Guilt Felt More by Women Than Men

Studies have shown that although guilt is a feeling that is more common among men, women tend to feel this emotion more intensely. In this study, researchers tried to analyze if feelings of guilt and their intensity, especially when habitual, could be different between the sexes. Researchers also attempted to understand other factors like “interpersonal sensitivity” and anxiety coupled with aggression, which could affect guilt. Results have shown that the difference between the sexes does indeed lie in these two factors and that, “habitual guilt was found to be more intense in women than in men in all age groups.”

Researchers had in a previous study explored feelings of guilt in teenagers between ages 15 and 19 and among adults in the 25 to 48 age group. They noted that teenage girls experienced deeper guilt than teenage boys but that adults showed no such gender disparity. For this study, the researchers tried to explore if these differences persist in adulthood. There have been studies that show that “problems in interpersonal relationships tend to evoke guilt (interpersonal guilt) and moral dilemmas more often in women.” This is labeled as “interpersonal sensitivity.” Besides, anxiety along with outward anger and inward anger known as “anxiety aggressiveness” also guides guilt. There have been no studies exploring the difference between the genders, caused by these factors “interpersonal sensitivity” and “anxiety aggressiveness,” and this prompted the present study.

•    The study group of 360 participants was divided into three age groups. The first one consisted of 156 teenagers (ages ranging from 15 to 19). The second group involved 96 adults (aged 25 to 33) and the third group had middle-aged adults (ages ranging from 40 to 50).
•    They were all given an initial questionnaire that asked them to relate a situation that made them feel guilty and rate the amount of guilt that they felt. Based on this, they were determined to be habitually guilty or not.
•    The guilt-evoking situations were also analyzed to see if they were interpersonal or not. For example, not visiting one’s aged mother was interpersonal while indulging in an extra drink was not.
•    Similarly, from a questionnaire that quantified the anxiety and anger felt due to these guilt-evoking situations, measures of “anxiety aggressiveness” were also determined.
•    Results showed that “the experiences of habitual guilt reported by women were more intense than those reported by men.”
•    These results are different from a previous study by the researchers that showed that adult men and women suffer from guilt equally.
•    More women reported interpersonal events (86.5 percent) than men (76.5 percent), in all the age groups. Also the anxious-aggressive factor was seen more among women, irrespective of age. Women in their middle age had the highest anxious-aggressive component.
•    Of concern is the fact that “interpersonal sensitivity” is the lowest among young men between ages 25 and 33.
Next steps/Shortcomings
One of the perceived shortcomings of this study was some of the gender behaviors in reporting feelings. Earlier studies have said that men may hide their actual emotions and women may exaggerate their emotions and expressions; in this study, sometimes women may have held back from expressing themselves, making analysis unpredictable. Researchers plan to explore these questions in future studies.


This study shows that women feel habitually guilty more often than men. This gender difference is mainly due to interpersonal relations and the anxiety and anger that they feel, if placed in a situation that evokes a feeling of guilt. One of the expected results from this study is the lack of empathy towards relationships and family, in young men. On the other hand, “anxious aggressiveness” can lead to deeper mental health problems than habitual anxiety. This lack of “interpersonal sensitivity” as well as “anxious aggressive” behavior could be tackled by a change in “educational practices and socializing agents,” according to the study authors.

For More Information:
Intensity of Habitual Guilt in Men and Women
Publication Journal: The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 2009
By Itziar Etxebarria and M. José Ortiz; University of the Basque Country, San Sebastián, Spain

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.
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