In this report, we sought to provide comprehensive empirical information on reasons for feelings of guilt in adults. Analyzing data from a large sample of n = 604 adults (18–84 years) participating in a cross-sectional web-based survey, we particularly sought to provide an overview of the potential variety and importance of different reasons for feelings of guilt in adults and on potential age- and gender-related differences in such reasons. Several aspects of our identified findings may deserve a closer look:
Variety and importance of reasons for feeling guilty
First and foremost, as the n = 604 participants stated 1515 reasons for feeling guilty that were classified into 12 supercategories and even 49 categories, our study identified a wide variety of different reasons for feelings of guilt in adults.
As stated in the introduction, there are many potential general sources for feelings of guilt, such as certain behavior, activity, action or inaction, thoughts, feelings, circumstances, intentions, or goals (e.g., [1, 13, 14]). Our findings also reflect these various general sources. By looking more deeply in our findings, ‘(mis-)behavior’ may be an important general source for feelings of guilt in adulthood, reflecting categories such as “telling lies/withholding truth/information” (rank 1 of the categories with the most frequently stated reasons for feeling guilty), “misbehavior towards/bad thinking of someone” (rank 3; this category, of course, can be additionally linked to the general source ‘thoughts’) or “cheating/having affair(s)” (rank 9). Other highly ranked categories such as “Not spending (enough) time with family (members)/Not taking (enough) care of family (members)/not being there for family (members)” (rank 2) or “Neglecting someone/not taking (enough) care of someone/not being there for someone” (tied rank 5) or “Not spending (enough) time with child(ren)/Not taking (enough) care of child(ren)/not being there for child(ren)” (rank 12) may either also be considered as some kind of ‘(mis-)behavior’ or as ‘inactivity’. ‘Inactivity’ may be additionally linked, for example, to a category such as “Procrastination/waste of time/being lazy/inactive/powerless/unmotivated” (rank 13).
As stated in the introduction as well, numerous specific types of guilt have been described in the literature, of which many can be subsumed under a broader term called ‘interpersonal guilt’. The term ‘interpersonal guilt’—emphasizing the relational, social character of guilt (for an overview, e.g., see [14, 15])—may also apply to the majority of identified reasons for feelings of guilt in our study considering, for example, the entire supercategories (and subordinated categories) 1–4 (“Feelings of guilt related to partner/spouse, child(ren), family (members) and other people”). Moreover, some of the described specific types of ‘interpersonal guilt’ may be found in our data:
‘Omnipotent responsibility guilt’—a type of guilt that “[…] involves an exaggerated sense of responsibility and concern for the happiness and well-being of others.” (O’Connor et al. , p. 76), for example, may be linked to the category “Subjectively perceived responsibility for life (situations, events, circumstances) and death (circumstances) of others/for not being able to help/support” (rank 4 of the categories with the most frequently stated reasons for feeling guilty). ‘Survivor guilt’ in its broader sense as a belief that an attainment of good things is not fair to other people who have not attained such good things or is at the expense of those other people [14, 30] may be linked to categories “Feelings of guilt related to a subjectively perceived responsibility for surviving” or “Feelings of guilt related to a subjectively perceived responsibility for having a better life than other people/Doing not enough against the problems on the world”. ‘Separation/disloyalty guilt’ as a “[…] belief that one is harming one’s parents or other loved ones by separating from them or by differing from them and thereby being disloyal” (O’Connor et al. , p. 76; ) may be linked at least to some of the stated reasons in categories such as “Disappointing/belying expectations of family (members)” or “Disappointing/Belying expectations of someone”.
Among the numerous further specific types of guilt that have been described in the literature, ‘parental guilt’ additionally may have to be mentioned here. As ‘parental guilt’ may be defined as a feeling of doing/having done something wrong and/or not enough in parenting in relation to own standards or standards of others, the entire supercategory 2 of identified reasons for feeling guilty in our study (“Feelings of guilt related to child(ren)”) may be regarded as some kind of ‘parental guilt’. Worth mentioning may also be some other specific types of guilt that at least can be linked to some of the stated reasons for feeling guilty in some of the differentiated categories in our study. ‘Guilt in certain disorders’ and ‘trauma-related guilt’, for instance, can be linked to stated reasons in category “Feelings of guilt related to a subjectively perceived responsibility for own diseases/own disorders/own traumatic experiences”, ‘weight-related guilt’ to stated reasons in category “Unfavourable health behaviour/self-indulgence”, and ‘guilt in bereavement’ to stated reasons in category “Feelings of guilt related to a subjectively perceived responsibility for life (situations, events, circumstances) and death (circumstances) of others/for not being able to help/support”. Other specific types of guilt may certainly be important in specific groups of adult individuals/patients and/or in specific situations/constellations but did not play a role in the answers of our more general sample of adults (e.g., ‘combat-related guilt’; see also below in the limitations section).
Two further findings of our study regarding the variety and importance of reasons for feeling guilty might be noteworthy. First, only a very small number (n = 6; 0.4%) of all stated reasons for feeling guilty explicitly referred to religious beliefs such as committing sins or misconduct in the eyes of God. Surely, many of the other stated reasons may also reflect some internalized religious commandments/norms/values (e.g., cheating/having affairs, stealing something, telling lies/withholding truth/information). The lack of explicit references to religious beliefs, however, may still be quite surprising, as concepts such as ‘guilt’ or ‘sin(s)’ are an integral part of many religious belief systems and as many adults in Germany are still members of a religious community (e.g., 22.6 million members of the Catholic Church, 20.7 million members of the Evangelical Church and 95,000 members of the Jewish community in 2019, and 4.4–4.7 million Muslims in 2015 [31, 32].
The other also noteworthy finding may be the fact that the vast majority of stated reasons for feeling guilty are related to concrete negative self-attributions/flaws or to concrete social situations, experiences, incidents, (in-)actions, (mis-)behaviors with concrete individuals (partner/spouse, child(ren) etc.). Feelings of guilt on a more universal, global level (e.g., feelings of guilt related to society or to humankind in general), by contrast, are rather rare considering the small number of stated reasons (n = 31; 2.0% of all stated reasons) in the category “Feelings of guilt related to a subjectively perceived responsibility for having a better life than other people/Doing not enough against the problems on the world”. Following the idea of experiencing guilt as an important adaptive prosocial mechanism, the mechanism may be rather limited to the more direct, closer, more experienceable social environment and may be less effective on a higher, more abstract social level. We may, for example, feel less guilty for a certain negative lifestyle (e.g., consumption or environmental behavior) if this lifestyle mainly affects people in other areas/countries/parts of the world but not or not obviously people in our direct social environment.
Gender and reasons for feeling guilty
As, unfortunately, only three adults without personal identification with a particular gender participated in our study, conclusions on potential differences and similarities in stated reasons for feeling guilty between these three participants and male/female participants would be way too speculative. Thus, we only focus here in the discussion section on the results of the male and female participants.
Regarding these two gender groups, similarities but also several differences in stated reasons for feeling guilty have been found. Both male and female participants, for example, often tended to have feelings of guilt because of “telling lies/withholding truth/information”. “Feelings of guilt related to misconduct/mistakes being made” in general (the supercategory of stated reasons including the subordinated category “Telling lies/withholding truth/information”), however, were more frequent in male than in female participants. It might be speculated that the reasons classified in this supercategory describing wrongdoings, deviant and to some extent even delinquent behavior (“Stealing something”, “Criminal acts/infringement”, etc.) simply reflect usually identified empirical gender differences in the frequency of such behaviors. To provide one example for a related statistic, in 2020, 75.2% of all suspects in criminal acts in Germany were men and 24.8% women .
Returning to some similarities, both male and female participants frequently experienced feelings of guilt because of “Not spending (enough) time with family (members)/Not taking (enough) care of family (members)/not being there for family”. The more general supercategory “Feelings of guilt related to family (members)”, including these reasons for feeling guilty, however, was more frequent in female participants. Female participants also more often experienced feelings of guilt related to children (e.g., “Faults in education/misbehavior towards child(ren”; “Not spending (enough) time with child(ren)/Not taking (enough) care of child(ren)/not being there for child(ren)”) and to some kind of general responsibility for the wellbeing of others (“Subjectively perceived responsibility for life (situations, events, circumstances) and death (circumstances) of others/for not being able to help/support”; “Neglecting someone/not taking (enough) care of someone/not being there for someone”), whereas male participants felt guilty more often related to the partner/spouse (see the corresponding supercategory “Feelings of guilt related to partner/spouse” including categories like “Problems/issues in relationship/marriage”,”Cheating/having affair(s)” and “Divorce/ Break-up” in Table 3 and Fig. 3).
It might be speculated that the higher frequency of reasons for feeling guilty of female participants regarding family members, children, and relevant others may also be to some extent a consequence of corresponding empirical gender differences. Indeed, women in Germany, on average, spend 52.4% more time per day on unpaid care work (e.g., for households and gardening or for the care of children and adults) than men . It might be assumed that the more things you have to care for the more ‘opportunities’ for feeling guilty will appear. Moreover, it is also thinkable that the gender differences in these particular reasons for feeling guilty may reflect some (internalized) traditional expectations/norms of society (e.g., “You are only a good mother, if you…”; “You have to take care of your wife…”).
Even though it is important to look for potential differences in outcomes with regard to an important sociodemographic characteristic such as gender and to find reasonable explanations for identified gender differences, such differences should also not be overinterpreted or overemphasized. Regarding our findings on the outcome ‘reasons for feeling guilty’, for example, it is important to note that—despite the fact that we have found differences between male and female participants—these are just differences in the frequency; all classified supercategories (12 out of 12) and almost all classified categories (45 out of 49) of stated reasons were found in both male and female participants. By borrowing heavily from the title of the very important study of Carothers and Reis on the latent structure of gender: Men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus—“Men and women are from Earth” (; p. 385).
Age and reasons for feeling guilty
The risk of overinterpreting or overemphasizing, of course, also applies to possible age differences in reasons for feeling guilty. Notwithstanding, we carefully want to address some of the identified differences:
“Telling lies/withholding truth/information” and “misbehavior towards/bad thinking of someone”, for example, were found to be very frequent categories of stated reasons for feeling guilty in participants of the three younger age groups 18–29, 33–44 and 45–59 years but rather rare categories in participants of the oldest age group 60 years or older. Several reasons are thinkable for the lower importance of these reasons for feeling guilty in older age. First, it is possible that the older generation indeed lied less frequently, thought less frequently bad of others or misbehaved less frequently throughout the lifespan than the younger generations and thus also experienced fewer feelings of guilt. Such better behaviors, for example, might be attributed to an assumed more conservative, more value-based education in the times the older participants were young.
A second, probably more convincing, reason may be a significant change in social relationships and the social environment with older age (for an overview, see ): (i) Social roles generating stress are reduced. The work environment as an important, hardly avoidable source of interpersonal problems does not matter anymore in regard to retirement. (ii) With increasing age, adults are optimizing their social relationships. Relationships that are more rewarding are actively sought, and relationships that are less rewarding are actively disbanded. (iii) […] “[O]lder adults appraise their social relationships more positively, even in the face of negative social exchanges” (; p. 12). (iv) Older adults are usually more socially experienced and thus make better judgments regarding potential social partners (e.g., avoiding social partners with a higher risk of confrontations). (v) Older adults usually avoid conflicts more often/more effectively than younger adults by using so-called ‘disengagement strategies’, such as ignoring a negative situation or avoiding the topic of a conflict . (vi) Social partners and society as a whole may treat older adults kindlier. (vii) And finally, especially in older age, adults often have fewer social contacts or are even at risk of being socially isolated (e.g., because spouse/partner/family members/friends have passed away or because children are living somewhere else). As a result, older adults might have simply less opportunities to misbehave than younger ones. These and other changes and mechanisms may lead to fewer ‘reasons’ for “telling lies/withholding truth/information” and “misbehavior towards/bad thinking of someone” and thus to less associated feelings of guilt in older age.
However, what about such potential feelings in a time when the older participants were younger and social relationships and the social environment haven’t/hasn’t changed yet? Should the older participants not remember their feelings of guilt experienced at a younger age? One answer may be that memory is not static. Humans forget. Situations in life can be re-evaluated, and associated emotions can change over time. In fact, a so-called ‘fading affect bias’ has been demonstrated in several studies, indicating that the intensity of an emotion being associated with a negative autobiographical memory fades faster than the emotion being associated with a positive one (e.g., [38, 39]). This psychological effect, though important, for example, for promoting a positive self-concept may additionally explain the lower frequency of feelings of guilt related to rather negative behaviors such as “Telling lies/withholding truth/information” and “Misbehavior towards/bad thinking of someone” and the generally identified lower average numbers of stated reasons for feeling guilty in participants of the older (45–59, 60+) compared to participants of the younger age groups (18–29, 30–44).
Explanations for other identified age differences in reasons for feeling guilty may be less comprehensive and complex. The lower frequency of stated reasons for feeling guilty related to “Not spending (enough) time with family (members)/Not taking (enough) care of family (members)/not being there for family (members)” in participants of age group 18–29 years than in participants of the three older age groups, for example, may be explained by the fact that other things in this age usually are more important like finishing school, doing an apprenticeship, studying at a college/university or finding a partner. According to the famous psychoanalytic theory of Erik H. Erikson describing eight different stages of psychosocial development throughout the lifespan, the major ‘task’ in young adulthood is to form intimate, loving relationships with other people (Stage 6: ‘Intimacy vs. Isolation’), whereas being there for others becomes an important task later in life (Stage 7: ‘Generativity vs. Stagnation’; middle adulthood) .
Findings of a higher frequency of stated reasons for feeling guilty with regard to “Divorce/break up” and “Not achieving something/failure” in participants of the oldest age group 60+ years, by contrast, fits perfectly to the last—eighth—stage of Erikson’s theory. According to Erikson, at this stage (‘Integrity vs. Despair’; late adulthood), the major task of an individual is to be able to look back on his or her own life with a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment (integrity). By looking back, however, some people may experience negative feelings such as disappointment or regret or may ruminate over mistakes/things that could not be achieved (despair) . A higher frequency of guilt feelings because of “Divorce/break up” and “Not achieving something/failure” in old age, of course, is also a consequence of time. If you are older, you simply had more ‘opportunities’ of not achieving something/failure or getting divorced/breaking up (because of statistically more and/or longer relationships) and thus may experience more corresponding feelings of guilt.
According to the findings on male and female participants, participants of the different age groups also showed many similarities regarding reasons for feeling guilty. The supercategory “Feelings of guilt related to negative self-attributions/flaws”, for example, was very frequent in participants of all four age groups. It is again important to note that the identified differences are just differences in the frequency; all classified supercategories and the majority of classified categories of stated reasons for feeling guilty were also found in participants of all age groups.
Our study has some limitations. First, we chose to use a web-based survey to collect information on reasons for feelings of guilt, as we expected that this approach would make it easier for people to share such sensitive personal information (compared to approaches such as telephone or face-to-face interviews in online surveys, people are able to anonymously provide written information). Additionally, recruitment was supported by a fieldwork agency with an online panel of registered users to reach out for many potential participants. On the one hand, these data collection and recruitment procedures indeed enabled us to gather information on reasons for feelings of guilt from a significant number of adults. On the other hand, the procedures certainly did not have produced findings representative of the German general adult population, as we, for example, did not reach out for people without access to the internet/to online surveys and/or without corresponding digital competences.
Second, we asked for reasons currently and in the past experienced feelings of guilt in a very simple manner by using the above stated open-ended questions. This ‘free-recall’ approach allowed participants to state all the reasons that came to their mind and allowed us to obtain an unrestricted impression of the wide variety of different reasons for feelings of guilt. It is, however, possible that the freely stated reasons are rather limited to the subjectively most important/severe ones. A ‘cued-recall’ approach in asking for reasons (e.g., ‘Do you currently have feelings of guilt/Have you ever had feelings of guilt because of reason A, reason B, … reason Z?’(Yes/No)) may have enabled/motivated participants to state more reasons including also less important/severe ones. In addition, participants, of course, were only able to report reasons for feeling guilty they were conscious about. However, as feelings are also driven by unconscious motives, wishes, needs, etc., this study design only allowed to draw conclusions on conscious reasons of feeling guilty. Moreover, without any given information on what guilt is/isn’t (we did not provide any definition, description, vignette etc. – again – to obtain a rather unrestricted impression of feelings of guilt in German adults), it is also possible that some participants may have confused certain things (e.g., feelings of guilt with feelings of shame), and this may have also influenced the participants’ answers on reasons for experienced feelings of guilt.
Third, reasons for feeling guilty stated by people in a certain population/country, of course, are dependent on specific characteristics or circumstances of this population/country. ‘Combat-related guilt’—a specific type of guilt related to things done/not done/experienced etc. in combat missions –, for example, was not found among the reasons for feeling guilty in our German sample of adults. It is, however, likely that this type of guilt occurs significantly more often in populations/countries, in which more adults serve in the army and in which more adults are involved in (more/more severe) military operations.
Finally—as stated above—, because of the large number of formed (super-)categories of reasons for feeling guilty and the small number of cases in a high number of such categories (especially in certain age- and gender-groups; see Table 3), we were not able to perform any convincing inferential statistical analyses on observed group differences in the frequency/percentage of the formed (super-)categories of reasons for feeling guilty.
Due to the limitations, generalizations about the German general adult population should be made with caution.