The aim was to investigate the relationship between feelings of guilt and the coping strategies used to manage it. Guilt has been found to accomplish important relational functions (Baumeister, et al., 1994), thus promoting reparative and prosocial behaviors through other-oriented strategies (Tangney & Dearing, 2002). However, several studies have shown that this is not always the case: e.g., when compensatory action is not possible, guilt evokes self-punishment (Nelissen & Zeelenberg, 2009) or ruminative thinking (Luyten et al., 2002)). In these cases, self-oriented, protective strategies are preferred.The aim was to investigate how the contextual features that elicit guilt affect action motivation: we studied the role of self-esteem, relational bonds with the victim, the perspective and social role of the transgressor when choosing functional strategies to reduce guilt.In three studies, participants were asked to imagine themselves in various guilt-provoking situations and to think of ways of reducing their guilt. In the 1st study, relational bonds with the victim were varied; in the 2nd study, social expectations regarding the transgressor were manipulated by comparing a group of priests with non-priests; in the 3rd study we repeated the 2nd study design adding a perspective manipulation (first/third).Study 1 showed that, in situations involving closer relationships, participants tend to choose other-oriented strategies, while self-oriented strategies are preferred in more distant relationships and in the case of participants with lower self-esteem. In studies 2 and 3, the priests reported more feelings of shame and tended towards more ruminative or educative strategies than the non-priests. These findings suggest that when the self is at risk as a result of an initial less positive self-image or excessive social expectations, feelings of guilt may overflow into the behavioral boundaries and potentially threaten the self. In this case, self-oriented coping strategies may reduce feelings of guilt and protect self-image.
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