Feb 8, 2011

Is Guilt Really Good?

Harvard Business Review ran a blog piece today, Defend Your Research: Guilt-Ridden People Make Great Leaders, an interview in the course of which Francis Flynn summarizes the conclusions of experiments involving the feeling of guilt. It turns out, not surprisingly, that guilt has many implications, and one might even say, functions in the workplace.  I say not surprisingly, because the research, its findings, and the media buzz about them fall into an often-recurring pattern:  (Social) scientist designs an experiment (or two, or three) which seems to bear on some interesting and long-discussed moral issue, distinction, or maxim, and arrives at startling, now "scientifically demonstrated" conclusions.  Several further features mark this whole process.

First, the reporters -- and quite often the researcher him or herself -- will extend the mantle of scientifically demonstrated or proven much further than good reflective scientific method would warrant, claiming much wider-ranging, universal claims can be inferred as conclusions from the study.  Now, they could be inferred.  Could -- yes, it might be as they interpret the experiments and the results -- but then again, one has to make all sorts of simplifying assumptions in order to bring that off.  The only problem with that is that reality -- and particularly when we are considering human beings -- is very complex, and simplifications tend towards oversimplification, and thus distortion of reality.  One can administer and compile data from all the Test of Self-Conscious Affect assessments one likes, given to carefully selected groups, and one will certainly learn some interesting things -- not directly about emotional life, and generalizable to people other than those belonging to those groups only with many caveats.

[As an aside, I must credit Flynn for resisting the interviewer's invitation to introduce untested assumptions about "Catholic guilt" as premises for speculation.
You and I both were raised Catholic. How are we not running major corporations with large philanthropic foundations by now?

We purposely stayed away from religion in this research. We don’t have any empirical evidence of a link between guilt and certain religious denominations.]

Second, in this entire vein of social-science research, what makes it a good story is that scientific findings will tend to vindicate a certain common wisdom, one still around, but often long dismissed in this progressive age of ours, one marked by nothing so more as the presumed obsolescence and then painful rediscovery of truths about human nature, development, morality, happiness, and such like matters -- those which in an earlier "modern' time, used to be acknowledges as falling within the province of moral philosophy.  The last thirty years have witnessed study after study which originated in the desire of a progressively-minded researcher choosing to study a topic about which they already knew, dogmatically, just like everyone else in their and other enlightened circles, that a certain position was the correct one, only to discover that when empirically studied, the observed data had to be interpreted the other way, as favoring an older, more traditionally-minded stance.  We discover that, after all, divorce does have bad effects, that absence of fathers in the home does tend towards bad outcomes. . .  the list goes on and on.  As it turns out the old common wisdom was indeed wisdom, not the folly it was assumed to be.

This brings me to the third feature.  It's not as if the matters examined by these experimenters have never been examined rigorously before, albeit through a rigor developed and imposed in a different order.  Psychology emerges -- as do the other social sciences like sociology, anthropology, criminology (to be sure, gestated disciplinarily within sociology's not-entirely-loving matrix) from philosophy, and when it comes to moral matters, philosophers -- if one goes beyond the thumbnails, snippets, and caricatures with which so many Intro to Philosophy courses manage to turn students off from philosophy -- if one actually reads through the thoughts, the arguments, the texts of philosophers, what becomes very evident is that these men and women thought their way into the phenomena, into the myriad realities of moral life.  If you want to learn about anger, by all means peruse the records of psychological experiments, examine whatever theories happen to be considered classic or cutting edge in psychology departments -- but first, read Aristotle, and you'll be astonished to find how much at least some people knew about that emotion back then, and how little substantive advance has actually been made beyond his own determinations and speculations.

Is guilt good?  Can it play a useful rather than harmful role in a person's mental make-up, work, relationships, life? Is it multifaceted, worth respecting, even inducing, but nevertheless an emotion with which one must be careful? Does guilt carry, as Flynn puts it, employing lingo germane to Harvard Business Review, both costs and benefits?

Well, yes, sure.  It is certainly interesting that we have Flynn and other researchers to tell us so, but if we know even slivers of the history of ideas or of moral philosophy (the right slivers, mind you), or if we were fortunate enough to encounter truly conventional wisdom and not to have it beaten, shamed (or guilted?), or incentivized out of us -- or if we are astute enough to on our own arrive via observation and reflection at conclusions similar to those of philosophers and ordinary, tradition-bearing people, then the scientist is like the guy at the party coming into the conversation near the end, making old points as if they were new.
As it turns out, guilt is good, isn't it?  Of course, before going on to answering this, the prudent thing to do is to clarify what good means.  It presumes you have a clear notion of what you're meaning by good.  And, you'd also better hope that those you're talking with also have that notion in mind, or you're going to wind up in a muddle, talking past, perhaps even debating past each other.  Interestingly, already back in Aristotle's time, somebody knew that "good is spoken of in many ways," which quickly becomes a commonplace for at least some philosophical (and theological) literature.

It's interesting to see in what ways guilt can be something good for Flynn and the HBR interviewer -- of course, in the right amount, to the right degree, felt towards the right things -- oh, wait, that's not Flynn is it?  I'm recalling Aristotle's ideas again.  Of course, there's nothing to prevent a psychologist from adapting Aristotle's moral theory, grafting its insights right into their own theories, as Daniel Goleman (the Emotional Intelligence author).

Well, in what senses is guilt good, in Flynn's book?  It seems to make people better leaders (or at least to be perceived as such by co-workers, in experiments, done on MBA students -- how this plays out for members of every other walk of life is not entirely certain).  It also made them better workers (or at least liable to get better performance reviews).  It helps people to feel committed and thus act and be committed to their employers.  There are connections between feeling guilt and altruistic behavior, and very interestingly with being able to alleviate the other negative feelings one might assume guilt would provoke or produce.

Guilt might come with costs as well, he acknowledges.  More study needs to be done, and I suppose we shall have to wait expectantly for those to be carried out, published, then publicized -- or perhaps we already possess excellent guides (in the library, in the humanities classrooms, in traditional proverbs, in the imitable good judgment of  the wise, whether learned or not) to progress our understandings  further in this and other topics of moral theory