The meaning of guilt: Reconciling the past to inform the future.

Despite decades of empirical research, a deceptively simple question remains unanswered: Is guilt good? Whereas some researchers assert that routine experiences of guilt (i.e., “trait guilt”) are maladaptive and indicative of poor psychological adjustment, others assert trait guilt to be adaptive and indicative of a prosocial disposition. In the current research we outline the theoretical underpinnings of 2 of the most commonly employed measures of trait guilt: unsituated measures (e.g., the Personal Feelings Questionnaire (PFQ; Harder & Lewis, 1987) and situated scenario-based measures (e.g., the Test of Self-Conscious Affect [TOSCA]; Tangney, Wagner, & Gramzow, 1989). We examine the construct validity of both measure types across 3 studies using a variety of traits (self- and informant-reported), states, and behaviors. Results provide overwhelming support for a “2-construct” argument, with PFQ guilt (our unsituated measure of choice) and TOSCA guilt (our situated measure of choice) displaying divergent results across nearly all traits, states, and behaviors measured. While the correlates of PFQ guilt were consistently maladaptive, the correlates of TOSCA guilt were consistently adaptive. Furthermore, only the PFQ predicted daily experiences of negative affect and state guilt. TOSCA guilt was unrelated to negative affective experience in daily life, thereby calling into question its conceptualization as an affective trait. Findings using the TOSCA and PFQ shame scales are also presented. We conclude by presenting a preliminary process model of guilt that may have utility for designing future research studies and developing new guilt questionnaires. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)