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When Guilt Is Good

Guilt-prone leaders who care about the suffering of others are less corrupt.

Key points

  • Feelings of guilt mediate whether or not an individual will accept bribes.
  • The degree to which individuals have concern for others mediates their willingness to engage in corruption.
  • A sense of guilt and concern for the suffering of others are linked characteristics.
Source: Debbie Peterson @heyjasperai
Having a heart curbs corruption.
Source: Debbie Peterson @heyjasperai

News reports of government corruption across all levels of government worldwide are driving researchers to investigate the psychological mechanisms that lead to corruption, as well as those that deter it. New research conducted by Xiaolin Zhou and Hongbo Yu, in May 2023, “The psychology behind feeling guilty and how it influences government corruption” published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, provides some pointers for citizens and organizations that seek honest leaders.

Researchers from the East China Normal University School of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, the University of California Santa Barbara Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, the Wang and Li Institutes of Psychological and Brain Sciences in China, and the Shanghai Key Laboratory of Mental Health and Psychological Crisis Intervention conducted two online experiments with 2,082 college students combining economic games with personality measures to determine whether a propensity to feel guilt impacts the occurrence of a common form of corruption, bribery.

Guilt vs. Greed

The first experiment in the study finds that feelings of guilt mediate whether or not an individual will accept bribes. A second finding in the first online experiment was that the degree of harm caused by the corruption and the degree to which individuals have concern for others also mediates their willingness to engage in bribery and that the two characteristics, a sense of guilt and concern for the suffering of others are linked.

The research solely focuses on proneness to feeling guilty as a single personality trait and does not consider other traits that may influence bribery. The authors suggest that other psychological mechanisms such as responsibility, obedience, and conformity may also contribute to the relationship between guilt-proneness and bribery. Together, the authors report that the study findings demonstrate that guilt-proneness is a critical function in curbing bribe-taking behaviors and suggest that concern for others’ suffering is an underlying psychological mechanism.

While the study establishes a correlation, rather than causation and cannot definitively conclude that increasing guilt-proneness will directly reduce corrupt behavior, the authors believe that the results have important implications for current world events.

It is their hope that the study insights will contribute to efforts to curb corrupt practices and foster integrity by strengthening policies and interventions that promote ethical behaviors in business and government. One way of doing this, according to the authors, would be to test for pre-disposition to guilt and concern about others, in new hires.

The good news for citizens is that by electing candidates who are predisposed to feeling guilt and concern about the suffering corruption causes, they can increase the odds of an honest government.


Hu, Y., Qiu, S., Wang, G., Liu, K., Li, W., Yu, H., & Zhou, X. (2023). Are Guilt-Prone Power-Holders Less Corrupt? Evidence From Two Online Experiments. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 0(0).

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