If You Have Guilt-Proneness, You’re Probably More Trustworthy

Fingers pointing ata guilty sign.

It turns out your mother was right: Guilt is a powerful motivator. (Image: geralt via Pixabay)

It turns out your mother was right: Guilt is a powerful motivator. New research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business finds that when it comes to predicting who is most likely to act in a trustworthy manner, one of the most important factors is guilt-proneness.

In the study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Who is Trustworthy? Predicting Trustworthy Intentions and Behavior, Chicago Booth Assistant Professor Emma Levine, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s T. Bradford Bitterly and Maurice Schweitzer, and Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business’ Associate Professor Taya Cohen identify a trait predictor of trustworthy intentions and behavior. The researchers also provide practical advice for deciding who we should place our trust in.

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Among the study’s key findings: A person’s tendency to anticipate feeling guilty, which the researchers call “guilt-proneness,” is the strongest predictor of how trustworthy that person is — more so than a variety of other personality traits (extraversion, openness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness).

Guilt-proneness is not the same as guilt

Guilt-proneness differs from guilt. Whereas guilt elicits reparative behavior following a transgression, guilt-proneness reflects the anticipation of guilt over wrongdoing and causes people to avoid transgressing in the first place. People who rank high in guilt-proneness feel a greater sense of interpersonal responsibility when they are entrusted, and as such, are less likely to exploit the trust others place in them.

In a series of six studies, the researchers set up economic games and surveys to measure trustworthy behavior and intentions. Individuals who scored high in the personality trait of guilt-proneness returned more money to others than individuals who scored low in guilt-proneness.

Furthermore, in one experiment, individuals who were primed to behave responsibly as a result of reading a code of conduct were more likely to return money to others than the individuals who read a passage about the importance of looking out for themselves. The researchers said:

The study is unusual in that — unlike existing trust research that focuses on what makes people trust each other — this study offers insight into who is worthy of that trust. Levine said:

Provided by: University of Chicago [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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