Prone to feeling guilty? It makes you more trustworthy

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A new research done by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business claims that who are more prone to feeling guilty, are also the ones who are likely to prove to be trustworthy.

The study, titled “Who is Trustworthy? Predicting Trustworthy Intentions and Behavior” was published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Led by researchers Emma Levine, Assistant Professor at Chicago Booth, T. Bradford Bitterly and Maurice Schweitzer from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Taya Cohen, associate professor from Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business, the study talks about how some traits are linked to trustworthy intentions in people. The research team also explains how we can choose whom to put our trust in.

The research team found that our tendency to anticipate guilt, or “guilt-proneness” is the biggest factor in determining how trustworthy a person is. It is much more helpful than other personality traits like extraversion, openness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness.

Researchers note that by guilt-proneness they do not mean the feeling of guilt. While guilt usually comes into play when one wants to mend any wrongdoing, guilt-proneness is what makes people to anticipate the guilt and stops them from committing the wrongdoing in the first place. People who are highly prone to feeling guilty exhibit better responsible behaviour when trusted with a responsibility, and will probably not exploit other people’s trust.

The research team devised economic games and surveys to determine trustworthy behaviour and intentions in people over a series of six studies. Participants who achieved a high score for guilt-proneness in the personality trait test returned money to others more than people who scored less for guilt-proneness.

In one of the experiments, researchers saw that participant who had been drilled to behave responsibly because of reading a code of conduct would more likely return money to others than participants who read that they should be worrying more about themselves.

“Trust and trustworthiness are critical for effective relationships and effective organizations,” added the research team. “Individuals and institutions incur high costs when trust is misplaced, but people can mitigate these costs by engaging in relationships with individuals who are trustworthy. Our findings extend the substantial literature on trust by deepening our understanding of trustworthiness: When deciding in whom to place trust, trust the guilt-prone.”

The study is quite unique as it focuses more on who is more likely to exhibit trustworthy behaviour than, like most past researches, on what what makes people trust each other.

“Our research suggests that if you want your employees to be worthy of trust,” said Levine, “make sure they feel personally responsible for their behavior and that they expect to feel guilty about wrongdoing.”


  1. It is interesting the study explored actual trustworthiness rather than perceived trustworthiness. The guilt-prone subjects returned money, but we cannot be sure who is more guilt prone. It is more promising than earlier studies though, because it looks at who we should trust rather than who we tend to trust. The differences could be revealing.


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