Feeling guilty versus feeling angry—who can tell the difference?

September 24, 2012

When you rear-end the car in front of you at a stoplight, you may feel a mix of different emotions such as anger, anxiety, and guilt. The person whose car you rear-ended may feel angered and frustrated by your carelessness, but it's unlikely that he'll feel much guilt.

The ability to identify and distinguish between negative emotions helps us address the problem that led to those emotions in the first place. But while some people can tell the difference between feeling angry and guilty, others may not be able to separate the two. Distinguishing between anger and is even harder.

In a study forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for , psychological scientist Emre Demiralp of the University of Michigan and his colleagues hypothesized that clinically depressed people would be less able to discriminate between different types of negative emotions compared to healthy individuals. Clinically depressed people often experience feelings of , anger, fear, or frustration that interfere with .

"It is difficult to improve your life without knowing whether you are sad or angry about some aspect of it," says Demiralp. "For example, imagine not having a gauge independently indicating the gasoline level of your car. It would be challenging to know when to stop for gas. We wanted to investigate whether people with had gauges that were informative and whether they experienced emotions with the same level of specificity and as healthy people."

The researchers recruited 106 people between the ages of 18 and 40 to participate in their study. Half of the participants were diagnosed with clinical depression and half were not. Over the course of seven to eight days, they carried a Palm Pilot, which prompted them to record emotions at 56 random times during the day. To report their emotions, they marked the degree to which they felt seven negative emotions (sad, anxious, angry, frustrated, ashamed, disgusted, and guilty) and four (happy, excited, alert, and active) on a scale from one to four.

Demiralp and his colleagues looked at participants' tendency to give multiple emotions (e.g., disgusted and frustrated) similar rankings at a given point in time. According to their methodology, the more two emotions were reported together the less the person differentiated between these emotions.

The researchers found that clinically depressed people had less differentiated negative emotions than those who were healthy, supporting their hypothesis. Notably, they did not find the same difference between groups for positive emotions—people with and without diagnosed clinical depression were equally able to differentiate between positive emotions. It is possible that people who are clinically depressed differentiate more between positive emotions as a coping mechanism.

Demiralp and his colleagues argue that the procedure used in the study to record emotions may be particularly useful in studying the emotional experience of clinically depressed people, paving the way for more treatment and therapy options in the future.

"Our results suggest that being specific about your might be good for you", says Demiralp. "It might be best to avoid thinking that you are feeling generally bad or unpleasant. Be specific. Is it anger, shame, or some other emotion? This can help you circumvent it and improve your life. It is one of our overarching goals to investigate approaches for facilitating this kind of emotional intelligence at a large scale in the population."

Explore further: Understanding emotions without language

Related Stories

Understanding emotions without language

November 2, 2011
According to a new study by researchers from the MPI for Psycholinguistics and the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, you don't need to have words for emotions to understand them. The results of the study were published online ...

Can feeling too good be bad? Positive emotions in bipolar disorder

July 22, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Positive emotions like joy and compassion are good for your mental and physical health, and help foster creativity and friendship. But people with bipolar disorder seem to have too much of a good thing. ...

Recommended for you

Before assigning responsibility, our minds simulate alternative outcomes, study shows

October 17, 2017
How do people assign a cause to events they witness? Some philosophers have suggested that people determine responsibility for a particular outcome by imagining what would have happened if a suspected cause had not intervened.

For older adults, volunteering could improve brain function

October 17, 2017
Older adults worried about losing their cognitive functions could consider volunteering as a potential boost, according to a University of Missouri researcher. While volunteering and its associations with physical health ...

Magic mushrooms may 'reset' the brains of depressed patients

October 13, 2017
Patients taking psilocybin to treat depression show reduced symptoms weeks after treatment following a 'reset' of their brain activity.

Living near a forest keeps your amygdala healthier

October 13, 2017
A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has investigated the relationship between the availability of nature near city dwellers' homes and their brain health. Its findings are relevant for urban ...

Scientists researching drugs that could improve brain function in people with schizophrenia

October 12, 2017
Virginia Commonwealth University researchers are testing if drugs known as HDAC inhibitors improve cognition in patients with schizophrenia who have been treated with the antipsychotic drug clozapine.

Researchers find a fine timeline between delusion and reality

October 12, 2017
The line between reality and delusion may be just a matter of time, a new Yale study suggests.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tausch
not rated yet Sep 25, 2012
You ask your subjects to be their own judge.

What is wrong with that?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.