Did you repeatedly upset your friend? A study finds you don’t feel as guilty as they think

A photo of Sam Maglio
Sam Maglio is an expert on cognition and motivation and co-author of a study finding anger is a much more elastic emotion than guilt. (Photo by Yana Kaz)

Alexa Battler

You messed up — forgot a birthday, blew off plans, didn’t pull your weight in a group project — now your friend’s mad and you feel bad. But soon you mess up again. Then again.

A new study discovered that while your friend will get madder and madder with each blunder, you won’t feel much guiltier.

Researchers found most people assume that with each social snafu, the wronged will become angrier and angrier and wrongdoers will feel guiltier and guiltier at the same rate. They also found this isn’t the case. Your guilt levels will instead act like flipping a light switch, shooting up at the first error and plateauing, while your victim’s anger will be like a dial, rising incrementally with each slight and dropping just as quickly between them. As the researchers put it, “anger climbs and guilt ambles.” 

“People aren’t perfectly calibrated when they predict how someone else is going to feel,” says Sam Maglio, co-author of the study and professor of marketing and psychology at U of T Scarborough. “But knowing how emotions work helps you regulate them.”

The gut feelings we experience after a faux pas serve a purpose — to repair our relationship. Our friend’s anger tells us we crossed a boundary and signals that we need to change our behaviour; our guilt motivates us to apologize and do better. Both feelings exist to keep mistakes from happening again. So what happens when they fail, and keep failing?

There’s little research to turn to, and the study offers a new perspective on these emotions: that in response to new circumstances, the different roles anger and guilt play cause anger to rise and fall much more than guilt. In essence, anger is elastic. Guilt, not so much.

“You might be expecting an apology because you’re overestimating their guilt,” Maglio says. “Your guess about what’s going on in their head is off and that can lead your behaviour to be off.”

Social closeness and apologies dramatically impact anger

Researchers conducted seven experiments with hundreds of participants, each of whom was designated wrongdoer or victim and placed in different scenarios. In one study, participants were told it was either their best friend or a co-worker who gaffed. Though wrongdoers felt equally guilty regardless of who they’d wronged, when it came to best friends, victims exhibited the lowest anger of all the studies.

Another scenario had participants err five times in a row by breaking a mug and repeatedly spilling liquids on their victim’s possessions. Just before the third transgression, the victim was told the wrongdoer bought them a new mug. Anger then decreased significantly more than guilt, and each experienced less emotion after the attempted patch-up, despite the subsequent spills.

“If I'm feeling guilty, I might not apologize because I think I'm stuck with this guilt regardless of what I do, failing to realize that my apology would go a really long way for the person feeling angry,” says Maglio, who is cross-appointed to the Rotman School of Management.

It's not that we don’t feel guilty — after our first slip-up, we’ll feel guilt at more than twice the intensity of our victim’s anger. Rather, researchers propose the pattern is partly because guilt is “prosocial,” a feeling that pushes us to be co-operative and charitable. There tends to be a limit to how intense our prosocial emotions get, which comes in handy for guilt. If we act too guilty, people may place more blame on us and hit us with the social rejection we’re hardwired to avoid. Prosocial emotions also tend to blind us to the scope of a problem — we’ll donate the same amount of money to an oil spill cleanup whether there’s 100 oily ducks or 10,000. And we’ll feel about as guilty about upsetting our friend after one offense or five. 

Guilt does rise in small bursts after the first mistake, but the changes are minute compared to the ramp of spikes that anger follows. Anger is a high-arousal emotion that increases easily, and the feelings we experience from one event tend to transfer to the next.

The study, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, notes that anger often makes us want to do things that make us madder, like yell or punch something. But with guilt, we simply want the feeling to go away.

“The good news is, just as sharply as that emotion intensity went up for anger, it’s ready to go back down,” says Maglio.Your apology goes further than you think.”