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The science of guilt and behavior

As Indiana residents, many of us were surprised by the story of "The Praying Robber." Twenty three year old Gregory Smith entered an Advance Cash America loan office in Indianapolis, Indiana carrying a gun (1). He claims that he intended to rob the establishment in order to help provide for his family (1). However, upon seeing the loan office clerk cry and pray, Smith was overcome with guilt (1). He apologized, surrendered the bullet in his gun to the clerk, dropped to his knees, and prayed with the clerk for 10 minutes (1). He then explained his hardships to the clerk, took the clerk's cell phone and twenty dollars, and left the rest of the cash when he exited (1).


This, now infamous, robbery made headlines because of the astounding actions that resulted from feelings of guilt. As evident from this case, as well as from most of our personal experiences, guilt greatly influences how we behave. However, why we feel guilt is a question psychologists have varying opinions about.

One theory is that guilt prevents us from making the same mistakes over again (2). This is referred to as withdrawal motivation, and it is believed to be the way we punish ourselves (2). Another theory is that guilt helps us to behave in a way that is socially acceptable (2). In this type of situation, when guilt fuels our desire to correct our mistakes, it is referred to as approach motivation (2).

According to the Association for Psychological Science, guilt may begin as withdrawal motivation (2). However when an individual finds a way to rectify the situation, they shift their focus from disciplining themselves to approach motivation in order to undo the damage they caused (2). This hypothesis was confirmed by brain activity measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG) (2).

Overall, most of us would agree that without guilt, our society would be chaotic and immoral. Whether it causes us to withdraw in repentance, teaches us not to repeat mistakes, or encourages us to make amends, guilt is a very valuable emotion. In fact studies show that nature tends to favor individuals who are more likely to feel guilty. These individuals tend to have a greater chance of forming strong bonds with others, reaching adulthood, and producing offspring (3). So the next time we feel guilty about a mistake, we should not let it consume us. Instead we can follow through with the behaviors that the emotion elicits. We can learn from our mistakes, take the necessary steps to move on, and do our part to help society function optimally as a whole.


  1. "Praying robber" remorseful
  2. The Science of Guilt
  3. The Science of Guilt


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