Why Do Humans Feel Guilt? Understanding the Genetics of Guilt

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Why Do Humans Feel Guilt? Understanding the Genetics of Guilt

Date of Content: April 18, 2024
Written by: Avanthika Nityanand
Reviewed by: Maarit Tiirikainen, PhD


Guilt is a complex emotional experience that arises when a person believes they have done something morally, legally, or socially wrong. It involves a profound sense of remorse and the desire to make amends or punish oneself. The sensation of guilt can vary significantly from person to person and situation to situation, but there are common elements.

What Can Guilt Do To a Person?

Physically, guilt can manifest through symptoms such as a knot in the stomach, tightness in the chest, an increased heart rate, or a feeling of heaviness. These sensations are often accompanied by sweating, shaking, or a sudden drop in energy levels, indicating the body’s acute stress response. 

Psychologically, guilt can lead to a preoccupation with the transgression, difficulty concentrating on other tasks, and pervasive thoughts about what could have been different.

Emotionally, guilt is associated with feelings of sadness, regret, and despair. A person might feel unworthy or inadequate, compounded by a sense of isolation as they perceive that others would judge them harshly if they knew the truth. It can lead to self-critical thoughts and a distorted self-image, where the individual sees themselves as a failure or inherently bad.

Furthermore, guilt can also impact behavior. It might cause someone to avoid others, withdraw from activities they enjoy, or engage in overcompensatory behaviors to alleviate the guilt. Social interactions can become strained, especially if the guilty person fears their actions have hurt someone else, leading to awkwardness or hostility in relationships.

Overall, guilt is an emotional state that involves a significant amount of self-inflicted emotional pain and anxiety, reflecting the internal conflict between one’s actions and one’s values or moral standards.

Guilty feelings

What is Unhealthy Guilt?

Unhealthy guilt is characterized by a disproportionate sense of responsibility or remorse for actions that did not cause harm. It is when the perceived wrongdoing is not reality-based. 

This type of guilt is excessive and unwarranted. It does not correspond to actual moral or social transgressions. Unhealthy guilt can be damaging, often trapping individuals in a cycle of self-blame and regret over actions that are normal or, in many cases, unavoidable.

One common manifestation of unhealthy guilt is when individuals feel guilty about actions they have little control over. Or when they assume responsibility for situations influenced by external factors beyond their control. For example, a person might feel guilty for being involved in an accident that was not their fault or for being unable to prevent a friend’s distress despite having no reasonable means to influence the outcome.

Unhealthy guilt can also arise from rigid, perfectionistic expectations of oneself. It can be linked to upbringing or past experiences where the individual was frequently made to feel accountable for things unfairly. This guilt is persistent and does not ease even after the individual has tried to make amends or has been forgiven by others. It can lead to a chronic state of feeling unworthy or inadequate, significantly impacting an individual’s self-esteem and mental health.


Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high-performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. 

In 1978 D.E Hamacheck wrote a paper distinguishing between two types of perfectionists: neurotic perfectionists and normal perfectionists. 

  • Neurotic Perfectionists: They set unrealistically high standards for themselves and are overly critical of their performance. Neurotic perfectionists are prone to experiencing negative emotions such as shame and guilt because they often focus on their failures and perceive themselves as never being good enough. They are unable to feel genuine pride in their achievements because their self-imposed standards are impossibly high, leading to a perpetual sense of inadequacy.
  • Normal Perfectionists: While they also set high standards, they have a more balanced and rational approach to achieving these goals. Normal perfectionists can experience pride in their accomplishments and are not overwhelmed by shame and guilt. This is because they accept their limitations and see their efforts as worthwhile, even if perfection is not achieved. Their self-evaluation is more forgiving, which allows for a positive emotional state following achievements.

A 2007 behavioral study was able to build on this concept. It involved 121 undergraduates categorized into healthy perfectionists (high perfectionistic strivings, low concerns), unhealthy perfectionists (high strivings, high concerns), and non-perfectionists (low strivings). The findings revealed that healthy perfectionists feel more pride and less shame and guilt compared to both unhealthy perfectionists and non-perfectionists. They also show less tendency towards shame and guilt, but have a higher tendency to experience pride than non-perfectionists.

You May Also Like: The Genetics of Optimism

Genetics of Guilty Feelings

The guilt experience is influenced by genetic and environmental factors, with genetics playing a significant role in determining one’s propensity for feeling guilty. Research in the field of behavioral genetics has indicated that certain personality traits associated with guilt, such as empathy, anxiety, and neuroticism, also have a genetic basis.

You May Also Like: The Genetics of Neuroticism


A 2015 study examined how early trauma and specific genetic variants—namely, the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) Val66Met (rs6265), and the serotonin transporter gene promoter (5-HTTLPR)—influence guilt and other associated emotions. 

The findings revealed that the intensity of experienced trauma correlates positively with guilt-proneness but only in adolescents who possess the low-expressing Met allele of the BDNF Val66Met polymorphism. This gene-environment interaction suggests significant implications for understanding how guilt develops and potentially contributes to psychopathology in youths.


The OXTR gene encodes for the oxytocin receptor, a protein that binds oxytocin, a hormone significantly involved in social behavior and reproduction. Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone,” plays a crucial role in various social behaviors, including mother-infant bonding, romantic attachment, and social recognition.

A 2014 study explored the genetic bases of human reconciliation behaviors, specifically self-punishment, in the context of unfair actions. Findings revealed that individuals with GA or GG genotypes of the rs53576 variant were more likely to self-punish compared to those with the AA genotype, indicating that the OXTR gene variation is linked to reconciliation tendencies, independent of feelings like guilt or shame.


The ELAVL2 gene, also known as Hu-antigen B (HuB), is part of the ELAV-like family of proteins. This family includes several RNA-binding proteins in various cellular processes that regulate mRNA stability and translation. The ELAV-like proteins are key players in the post-transcriptional gene expression regulation, affecting cell proliferation, differentiation, and survival. A 2018 study found out that genetic variations in this gene (rs10119773) can influence how prone you are to feelings of guilt.

GRIA3 and GRIK1 Glutamate Receptor Genes

The GRIA3 gene encodes for Glutamate Ionotropic Receptor AMPA Type Subunit 3, a part of the AMPA receptor complex. AMPA receptors are critical components of synaptic transmission in the brain, facilitating fast synaptic transmission in the central nervous system.  A 2012 study investigated the genetic underpinnings of individual depressive symptoms in 241 Korean patients diagnosed with major depression according to DSM-IV-TR criteria. Results revealed that the TT variant of rs557762 SNP of the GRIA3 gene was correlated with increased feelings of guilt among female patients.

Interestingly, the 2018 study found a SNP (rs681875)  in another brain expressed glutamate receptor gene, GRIK1, to be associated with increased feelings of guilt. GRIK1 encodes for glutamate ionotropic receptor kainate type subunit 1. This association was confirmed by a 2021 study including over 450,000 participants, both female and male, which found several guilty feeling  SNPs in the GRIK1 gene as well. 

Non-Genetic Reasons for Feeling Guilty

While genetics play a role in the propensity to feel guilty, non-genetic factors are equally influential. These include cultural, societal, and personal experiences that shape an individual’s understanding of guilt and their reactions to it.

Cultural Influences: Different cultures have varying norms and values, which can dictate when and why guilt is experienced. For instance, collectivist societies, which emphasize the group’s welfare over the individual, might induce guilt more frequently in contexts involving familial or communal obligations. Conversely, in individualistic societies, guilt might be more commonly linked to personal failings or breaches of personal ethics.

Societal and Familial Expectations: Expectations imposed by society or family can create a fertile ground for guilt. For instance, parents who set particularly high standards can inadvertently foster feelings of guilt in their children for not meeting these expectations. Similarly, societal pressures related to roles, such as those about gender or profession, can also trigger guilt.

Personal Experiences and Values: Personal history plays a critical role in developing guilt. Traumatic events, especially those where the individual feels they could have acted differently, often lead to long-lasting feelings of guilt. Additionally, personal values and morals, developed over time and influenced by cultural and individual experiences, define what an individual considers right or wrong, thus influencing guilt responses.

Psychological Factors: Mental health conditions can affect how guilt is experienced. For example, individuals with depression or anxiety are more likely to interpret situations in a way that induces guilt, regardless of their actual culpability. This is often due to distorted thinking patterns characteristic of these psychological conditions.

Overall, non-genetic factors are pivotal in shaping how guilt is experienced and managed. They provide the context in which genetic predispositions are expressed and are essential considerations in psychological counseling and therapy.

Is Feeling Guilty About Eating a Disorder?

Feeling guilty about eating can be a symptom of an eating disorder, particularly if the guilt is excessive, persistent, and specifically related to eating habits. This condition is often associated with disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. 

In the context of these disorders, guilt about eating is not just a casual regret but a profound and distressing experience that significantly impacts the individual’s mental health and dietary behaviors.

In anorexia nervosa, individuals may feel intense guilt after consuming what they perceive as too much food or food that is off-limits according to their dietary rules. This guilt can contribute to further food restriction and starvation. 

In bulimia nervosa, episodes of binge eating are followed by feelings of extreme guilt, which then lead to compensatory behaviors such as vomiting, excessive exercise, or the use of laxatives. Similarly, in binge eating disorder, individuals often feel profound guilt and shame following a binge, which can exacerbate the cycle of emotional eating.

Guilt related to eating can also occur outside of these clinical disorders in what might be considered disordered eating behaviors. Examples include feeling guilty after eating dessert, eating when not physically hungry, or eating certain types of food deemed unhealthy. This guilt can stem from societal pressures, personal body image issues, or from internalizing idealized health standards.

Is Optimism the Same as Positivity?

While optimism and positivity share a common thread of positive thinking, they encompass distinct psychological constructs. Scientifically, optimism is characterized by a positive expectation regarding future outcomes, emphasizing a hopeful outlook despite challenges. 

It’s grounded in a cognitive perspective that anticipates favorable results. Positivity, on the other hand, is a broader concept encompassing a general inclination towards positive emotions, attitudes, and experiences in the present. It involves maintaining an affirmative mindset without necessarily focusing on future outcomes.

Research in positive psychology underscores these differences. Optimism is often regarded as a specific cognitive trait, measurable through various psychological assessments, reflecting an individual’s expectation for positive outcomes in diverse life situations. Positivity, however, extends beyond cognitive processes to include a broader spectrum of emotional experiences and expressions.

While both optimism and positivity contribute to well-being, optimism specifically pertains to future expectations, whereas positivity encompasses a broader embrace of positive emotions in the present. Understanding these distinctions enhances our comprehension of the nuanced ways in which positive thinking manifests in our thoughts, emotions, and overall mental outlook.

How to Control Unhealthy Guilty Feelings

Controlling guilty feelings involves understanding their origins and implementing strategies to manage them effectively. 

Whether guilt serves a functional purpose by encouraging corrective actions or becomes a source of chronic stress, managing it can lead to better psychological health and improved relationships. Here are several strategies:

Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques: One practical approach is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps individuals recognize and alter distorted thinking patterns that cause undue guilt. For example, restructuring thoughts to see situations more realistically can diminish feelings of guilt.

Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices can help individuals become more aware of their emotions and thoughts without becoming overwhelmed by them. Mindfulness teaches acceptance, allowing one to acknowledge guilt without letting it dictate their actions or self-worth.

Communication and Apologies: If guilt stems from a genuine mistake that affects others, addressing it directly through communication or an apology can alleviate the feeling. This not only helps resolve the underlying issue but also reclaims a sense of agency.

Set Realistic Expectations: Often, guilt arises from unrealistically high expectations of oneself. Reevaluating these expectations to ensure they are achievable and forgiving oneself for mistakes can significantly reduce feelings of guilt.

Professional Help: Persistent or severe guilt, especially when linked to depression, anxiety, or past trauma, may require professional counseling. Psychologists and therapists can provide tailored strategies for coping with guilt, including exploring underlying issues through psychotherapy.

Healthy Lifestyle Choices: Regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and a balanced diet can improve one’s overall mental health, making it easier to handle emotions like guilt.

By employing these strategies, individuals can manage their feelings of guilt more effectively, leading to healthier emotional processing and interactions with others.

About LifeDNA’s Personality & Cognition Report

The LifeDNA Personality and Cognition Report offers intriguing insights into how your genetics might influence your behavior, emotions, and social interactions. Based on genetic markers associated with personality traits such as introversion, extroversion, and emotional resilience, the report provides a detailed analysis to help you understand yourself better. Knowing your genetic predispositions can guide personal development, optimize relationships, and enhance career satisfaction.

The Personality & Cognition Report also covers an analysis of your genetic susceptibility to Guilty Feelings. Get your report here.


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