Although changing social and cultural contexts mean guilt has less power today than it once did, a new study shows that in the West, this emotion is "significantly higher" among women. The main problem is not that women feel a lot of guilt --they do--but rather that many men feel "too little."
"Our initial hypothesis was that feelings of guilt are more intense among females, not only among adolescents but also among young and adult women, and they also show the highest scores for interpersonal sensitivity," says Itziar Etxebarria, lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of the Basque Country.
The research, published in The Spanish Journal of Psychology, was carried out using a sample from three age groups--156 teenagers, 96 young people and 108 adults--equally divided between males and females. The team of psychologists asked them what situations most often caused them to feel guilt. They also carried out interpersonal sensitivity tests: the Davis Empathetic Concern Scale and a questionnaire on interpersonal guilt created for this study.
Comparing the measurements of intensity of habitual guilt of these groups, the researchers saw this score was significantly higher for women in all three age groups. "This difference is particularly stark in the 40- to 50-year-old age group," points out Etxebarria.
The data also suggest female teenagers and young women have higher scores than males of the same age. "This is caused by certain educational practices, which demand more of females and which are sometimes still in use despite belief to the contrary," claims the scientist.
The authors also found gender differences, similar to those noted for habitual guilt, in the two indices of interpersonal sensitivity, although among the 40- to 50-year-olds, the men's levels came closer to women's.
The interpersonal sensitivity of men, especially those ages 25 to 33, is "comparatively low." The experts say a lack of sensitivity could lead to absence or excessive weakness of certain kinds of guilt, such as empathetic guilt, which could be beneficial for interpersonal relationships and for the individual.
Types of Guilt
The most common forms of guilt are related to situations in which we cause harm to others. Stemming from this, it is normal that this arouses feelings of empathy for the people we may have harmed, which tend to turn into feelings of guilt when we recognize we are responsible for their suffering.
A previous study, also headed by Itziar Etxebarria, analyzed people's experiences of guilt, differentiating two components. One of them was empathetic, or sorrow for the person we have harmed in some way, and the other was anxious-aggressive, or unease and contained aggression.
The anxious-aggressive kind of guilt is more common in people who have been raised in a more blame-imposing environment and who are governed by stricter rules about behavior in general and aggression in particular. "It seems obvious that this component will be more intense among women, and especially in older women," says Etxebarria.
The greater presence of this component among women, particulare in those women ages 40 to 50, explains the marked differences in the intensity of habitual guilt in this age group, "just at the age when males move towards females in the two indices of interpersonal sensitivity analyzed," she explains.
"Educational practices and a whole range of socializing agents must be used to reduce the trend towards anxious-aggressive guilt among women and to strengthen interpersonal sensitivity among men," concludes the researcher.
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