Guilt and Regret

Being a person of faith, I'm pretty familiar with "guilt". Though Catholics claim to be the professionals in this field, protestant Christians are also pretty expert in the usage of guilt, with some brands or church denominations more into it than others. It's a useful tool, guilt. An inexpensive way to control behaviors. Guilt is a hardy weed that's planted in the heart, and when done right, is pretty difficult to remove. It's got a long half-life. It nags at you, oftentimes even after an action has been changed... there's guilt for not doing something, then, once you decide to 'do right', there's an aftertaste of guilt because it took you so long to change your ways.

I'm defining guilt as a private shameGuilt is a lot like regret. They are siblings, these two tools of behavior. Maybe they are synonyms, maybe they are similar but distinct from each other. Maybe one experiences guilt over something they haven't done but they feel they should do - a little different from regret; regret, then, is remorse for something that you did do - but wish you hadn't. Or maybe they are the pre- and post- feelings that sandwich an undesired action: you feel guilt before doing something you shouldn't - and if it's strong enough you don't do it, and regret is the bitter aftertaste you feel if you do the bad act. I haven't looked up these words to be exact or lean on an established definition, I'm just trying to figure it out.

But it's been my experience that religion uses guilt to change behavior; those of us in the common congregation agree to a set of norms and guilt is one of the tools we use to get ourselves and others to live up to those standards. If we truly believe, we want to measure up to the behaviors we agree are desirable. When we run our analysis, compare our observed data (our actions) to the control (the desired or expected behavior), guilt is what we experience when we look at that significant P-value telling us there is a significant difference between these two sets. We dislike the bad feeling, the regret we feel, enough to make us act differently next time, maybe.

So that's guilt, as used by religion - specifically Christianity; I wonder if Buddhists or Hindus use guilt. I suspect they do, at least to some degree. Society outside religion certainly does, at least in the Western society where I live. A quick Amazon search shows this is a healthy area of commentary. A lot of books on the topic. 

The professional field I work in has been using guilt as one of its main tools for a few decades... really since it formally began. It's certainly familiar: a video of a polar bear on a snowfield- white on white. The camera backs away to reveal the bear is on a slab of ice, floating on the water, miles from anywhere. The message is that even this noble, wild creature - as far from concrete and car fumes as one can imagine - lives in a fractured state, a melting ice-raft of Nature - and the message is, it's our fault. The obvious connection for the viewer is to internalize What I do is causing this damage; I should act differently.  And for most of us, there is certainly some truth in this message.

Assuming we have a shared value of Nature, assuming that we all want the polar bear, and wilderness, and The Environment to exist and be healthy - if we all share this value, then it's the job of the Environmentalist (it seems) to make the connection between our shared values and our actions that are counter to them. Nature, the thing we value, is being harmed by many of our actions or behaviors. We are given lists of  behaviors that are bad, and alternatives, which are desired. When we look at our own behaviors and find that they are among the 'bad' behaviors, we feel guilt. That guilt is supposed to motivate us to change our behaviors so we don't have internal discord; we love Nature but our behaviors don't reflect it. We want to remove that tension - we love Nature, after all. So, guilt is one tool we use to change behaviors, to resolve the dissonance between our values and our actions.

I was in a meeting the other day, a tour, really, and they had refreshments at one of the stops: Apples, oranges, bananas, M&M's, bottled water and soft drinks. Because I love Nature and don't like internal discord, I had my personal water carrying device with me and had been filling it up in various bathroom sinks all day, as is my routine. My bottle was empty at this point and I looked around for a restroom to fill it up. It's pretty rare to be too far from a restroom in modern circumstances, but at the moment there wasn't one, and watching everyone crack open cans and water bottles made me really want one of those ginger ales chilling in the ice bucket.  The sodas being offered were those mini-can varieties, not a full 12 ounce can, maybe 6 ounces or so. The reasoning going on in my head was that I wasn't really that thirsty and the half-can would be a reasonable amount of fizzy sugar water. If it were a full can, I would resist because I wasn't a full-can thirsty. These half-cans were a good compromise, and besides, I wasn't going to eat any of the snacks because we had been served lunch only an hour before. And anyway, as my line of rationalization went, at lunch I chose the 'garden lasagna' because it sounded like it might have a lower environmental footprint to produce than the 'chicken marsala' option, and I drank water from my trusty water bottle in an admittedly pharisaical display of eco-frienldy behavior, there in a upper-middle-class restaurant in a trendy, newly developed part of town.  And so, the mental scales in my head tilted in such a way as to convince me that I deserved the reasonably sized indulgence, so I cracked open the can and drank the refreshing drink and felt less bad - less guilty - than I would have if it were a standard 12 ounce can. I even felt a little bit good about myself, partly due to my recent string of good decisions - the good behaviors that I had been exhibiting in the past few hours, and partly due to the refreshing goodness of the moderate amount of cold ginger ale.

By the time the empty can had lost its coolness I realized both my hands were holding empty metal containers: the empty half-size container of ginger ale, and my ever-present personal canteen.  Wanting to get rid of the evidence that I was like everyone else in the room, that I am also a glutinous super-consumer, I looked around for a recycling bin. I was pretty amazed that there wasn't one, just a single land-fill bound trash bag, getting filled up with paper napkins (provided to absorb the condensation that developed because of the ice that was produced and trucked in to cool our CO2-enhanced sugar water); compostable banana peels, half-eaten apples and orange rinds; candy wrappers; plastic water bottles and aluminum cans.  So there I stood, truly downtrodden because I would have to send my midget can to a hole in the ground, somewhere in middle Tennessee, rather than a facility where the resources in the can could be processed and re-used in some down-cycling process. I felt stupid, duped, weak, like a thoughtless drone. And guilty. Or maybe I felt regret.  Maybe I felt guilt for throwing the can away and regret for drinking the unnecessary product.

I didn't need the 6 ounces of carbonated refreshment, but I wanted it and felt I had earned the small bit of temporary pleasure. I gave in, and now this.  Days later, I'm still thinking about it, still feeling the sting of regret and oppression of guilt for not recycling the can.  I guess I'll get over it, in time. It was only a half-can.

But I'm left wondering about this tool that's used. I wonder about these two systems I'm involved in - Religion and the applied side of Environmental science - Sustainability, and wonder if Guilt is really the best tool to use in changing behaviors.


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James English

James English

Dr. James English serves as Academic Director for the Institute for Sustainable Practice and Associa... [More]

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