Guilt has been found to accomplish important relational functions, thus promoting reparative and prosocial behaviours through other-directed strategies. However, not all the various situations potentially eliciting guilt lead to adaptive behaviour. When compensatory actions are not possible or when self-image is at risk, self-directed strategies may be adaptively preferred. We thus wondered whether social expectations towards specific morally relevant roles, such as Catholic priests, would affect the emotional response to moral transgressions and, consequently, the choice of coping strategies to restore the original emotional status. In two studies, two groups of participants were asked to imagine themselves in guilt-evoking situations and to think of ways of reducing their negative feelings. In study 1, social expectations regarding the transgressor were manipulated by comparing a group of Catholic priests and of lay people. In study 2 we repeated the same design adding a manipulation of the perspective (first/third person). Globally, results showed that the priests reported more feelings of shame when in the first-person condition and were more likely to cope with their negative feelings by means of self-directed strategies than lay people. Results suggest that, when the self is at risk as a consequence of moral transgressions that violate social expectations, feelings of guilt may be accompanied by intense feelings of shame. In these cases, self-directed coping strategies may be adaptively chosen in order to reduce negative feelings and restore a positive self-image.
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