Collective Guilt

Nyla R Branscombe & Mark A Ferguson. Encyclopedia of Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. Editor: John M Levine & Michael A Hogg. Sage Publication. 2010.

Guilt is an unpleasant emotional reaction that occurs with the perception of having committed some type of moral violation. Historically, psychological research on guilt has focused on the feelings of guilt that arise when people feel personally responsible for causing illegitimate harm to others. Recent research has revealed that people can have similar feelings of guilt when their group is perceived to be responsible for illegitimately harming members of another group. This collective guilt results from sharing a social identity with others whose actions represent a threat to the positivity of that identity. Thus even though others were responsible for the harm or moral violation, and the individual is not directly implicated in the harm-doing, the individual can still have feelings of collective guilt.

A wide range of intergroup inequalities can elicit these feelings, from the receipt of unearned benefits or privileges that members of other groups do not receive to more extreme forms of harm-doing, including genocide. Given the aversive nature of collective guilt, people are motivated to avoid or decrease its intensity. There are several methods for doing so; these generally involve distorting perceptions of the ingroup’s behavior (e.g., minimizing the extent of harm done, denying the harmful actions entirely) or justifying its actions (e.g., because the victims deserved their outcomes or the ingroup had legitimate reasons for causing the harm it inflicted). Use of all of these options can help to maintain a positive social identity when even the gravest of ingroup harm-doing is confronted.

Despite its aversive nature, feeling collective guilt can lead to positive social outcomes, such as reducing negative attitudes toward the harmed outgroup and promoting intergroup reconciliation through apologies or reparations. These benefits are particularly likely when repairing the harm done is perceived to be not too difficult or costly, so that correcting the wrongs committed by the ingroup seems both feasible and worthwhile.

What Causes Collective Guilt?

Several factors influence whether, and how much, collective guilt is experienced in response to reminders of ingroup harm-doing. First, one’s social identity must be salient. For one to experience collective guilt, one must perceive oneself as a member of a social group that has committed illegitimate harm against an outgroup. This produces a perceptual shift from thinking of oneself in terms of “I” or “me” toward thinking of oneself in terms of “we” or “us.” In this way, the self can be linked with past or present ingroup harm-doing. For instance, contemporary Americans can certainly claim that they personally did not participate in slavery or the colonization of indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, when contemporary Americans think about themselves as part of the historical legacy, from which they may even benefit in the present, they can experience collective guilt based on the past actions of the larger “we.”

The second factor that influences the extent to which collective guilt is experienced is collective responsibility. In order to feel collective guilt, it is important for people to perceive their group as responsible for the harm done to the outgroup. One basis for attributing responsibility to a group is perceiving that group as having benefited from the harm done to the outgroup. For instance, existing racial inequality can be framed in terms of the consequences that it has for outgroup members, or in terms of the consequences that it has for ingroup members. Thus researchers framed racial inequality in the United States in terms of Black disadvantage or White privilege. The framing of racial inequality as “Black disadvantage” allowed White participants to feel less collectively responsible for the harm done to the outgroup, which lessened collective guilt. Framing racial inequality as “White privilege” increased White participants’ feelings of collective responsibility for the harm done to the outgroup, leading to greater collective guilt.

The third factor that influences the experience of collective guilt is the perception that the ingroup’s actions toward the outgroup were illegitimate. Collective guilt requires that people see their ingroup’s actions as unjustified, immoral, or wrong based on existing ingroup norms. Because it is threatening to conclude that one’s group has acted unjustly, people will employ a number of strategies that are aimed at justifying the ingroup’s actions. To the extent that the ingroup’s harmful actions can be interpreted as legitimate and reflecting noble intentions—especially those that can be construed as protecting the ingroup from harm—collective guilt for even the most severe harm will be lessened.

The experience of collective guilt is not simply a function of empathy for those harmed. Rather, the experience of collective guilt reflects the distress that is aroused when the ingroup’s morality is questioned. Two studies have directly tested whether empathy for the victims or distress about one’s own social identity determines the extent to which collective guilt is experienced. In these studies, perceiving the ingroup (i.e., men) as responsible for the inequality that harms the outgroup (i.e., women) was found to increase collective guilt via self-focused distress and not by empathy for the outgroup. This not only discounts the view of guilt as stemming from empathy, but it also supports the notion that guilt is a selfconscious emotion.

What Reduces Collective Guilt?

There are numerous means by which collective guilt can be undermined. For this reason, collective guilt has been described as a fragile emotion. Collective guilt can be lessened in at least four ways.

First, people can deny the ingroup’s harmful actions, or downplay the severity of the harm done to an outgroup. Perceiving fewer victims or even fewer ingroup members as involved in the harm-doing can lessen collective guilt.

Second, people can deny the ingroup’s responsibility for harm done to an outgroup. For example, men could blame women who are raped by suggesting that women somehow encourage the perpetrators, whether through their appearance or behavior. By blaming female victims for the harm done to them, men can escape feeling any collective guilt for their group’s harmful treatment of women. Moreover, people can deny the existence of collective responsibility, choosing instead to claim that only individuals are responsible for their behavior. For instance, American soldiers who served in Vietnam could deny collective responsibility for the harm done to Vietnamese civilians by suggesting that such harm was committed by a few bad ingroup members and those alone should be held responsible. When individual members of the ingroup are singled out for blame, then people can escape feeling collective guilt for the group’s harmful actions.

Third, people can claim that their group’s behavior was legitimate. For instance, Jewish research participants have reported that Israel’s harm to Palestinians is justified because it is in response to Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel; such claims undermine feelings of collective guilt. The same is true of Americans. When Americans are reminded of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, they are less likely to feel collective guilt for subsequent harm done to Iraqis—U.S. actions in Iraq are seen as a legitimate response to al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism. Another way to legitimize the ingroup’s harmful treatment of outgroups is to dehumanize the victims. By portraying members of outgroups whom we harm as either animals or machines, we can make our ingroup’s behavior appear natural and even necessary. Such perceptions allow people to escape feeling collective guilt for harm-doing that is intentionally inflicted.

Fourth, people can focus on the benefits of the harm done to outgroup members, rather than the costs. For instance, Dutch research participants who read a benevolent description of their ingroup’s historical colonization of Indonesia (e.g., “they built roads and schools”) experienced less collective guilt than those who read a less benevolent description of their ingroup’s colonization (e.g., “they annexed land and killed natives”). When the harmful treatment of the outgroup is portrayed as turning out positively, then people can escape collective guilt for their group’s harmful actions.

People’s feeling collective guilt may not be sufficient to translate into their reconciliation with the outgroup and future positive behavior toward outgroup members. In order to initiate action, people must also feel some amount of efficacy to bring about desired changes and believe that it is possible to make up for the harm done. For instance, when men were led to believe that the difficulty of making reparations to women for the harm done to them (e.g., the economic disadvantages women have suffered due to institutionalized sexism) would be very costly, collective guilt was lower than when the cost was deemed to be more moderate and therefore potentially manageable. Thus, when people believe they can bring about change that will result in more positive relations between groups, feelings of collective guilt are most likely to encourage reparations for past harm.

Although collective guilt is an aversive emotion, it is predictive of a number of positive social consequences. A variety of studies have shown that the more White Americans feel collective guilt for racial inequality, the more they support affirmative action programs for the harmed group. Feelings of collective guilt also predict support for apologies to the harmed group, as well as financial reparations. Perhaps most important, feeling collective guilt for racial inequality can decrease racism.