Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Finger, Elizabeth C.


Though aversive, the experience and expression of guilt is important to healthy social functioning. Guilt is often described as visceral, and nonverbal guilt expressions are anecdotally observed, yet much remains unknown about how guilt is expressed. The present work aimed to explore the visceral experience of guilt via the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and the nonverbal display of guilt via facial, gestural, and postural expressions. Using a novel film paradigm, we explored ANS activity during guilt in healthy adults and adults with neurodegenerative disorders (NDs). We further explored the nonverbal behaviours associated with guilt in healthy adults. We hypothesized that, in healthy adults, patterns of ANS or nonverbal expressions would distinguish guilt from comparison emotions. We further hypothesized that these expressions would be altered in NDs. In healthy adults, we identified the electrogastrogram, swallowing rate, and electrodermal activity as related to the experience of guilt. In patients, we identified swallowing rate and electrodermal activity as altered during guilt. We further found a pattern of activation indicating that in certain NDs there may be overactivation of the parasympathetic nervous system or underactivation of the sympathetic nervous system during guilt. Finally, we found participants were equally or less likely to perform nonverbal behaviours during guilt compared to other emotions. These findings suggested that the nonverbal communication of guilt may be reliant on the presence of observers. Overall, this work suggests that, in healthy adults, guilt is associated with a pattern of psychophysiological and nonverbal outputs, and that the psychophysiology of guilt may be altered in dementia. These results may be applied to future work on the topic of guilt expression and may suggest diagnostic or treatment targets for diseases with maladaptive levels of guilt.

Summary for Lay Audience

Guilt is an emotion that is caused by the realization that, through one’s specific action or failure to act, one has brought harm to another. Guilt is painful to experience, but a healthy level of guilt is necessary for normal social functioning. Though guilt is often described in terms of its expression, whether that be internally as a guilty person’s clenching stomach or externally as their averted gaze, very little is known about the expression of guilt in healthy adults, or the way it may be altered in diseases that are known to experience unhealthy levels of guilt, like frontotemporal dementia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. This thesis sought to explore the way that guilt is expressed via the autonomic nervous system and via nonverbal expressions. We hypothesized that the expression of guilt would distinguish it from other emotions such as sadness or disgust, and that this expression would be altered in neurodegenerative disorders like frontotemporal dementia. We found that there are elements of the autonomic nervous system that are impacted by the experience of guilt, particularly movement of the stomach, swallowing rate, and skin sweating. In patients, we found evidence that there are changes in the way that the body reacts to guilt that suggests underreactivity to guilt. Finally, we found that healthy adults displayed nonverbal behaviours equally or less than they did in other emotions, suggesting that the nonverbal expression of guilt may be driven by being observed. Overall, these findings contribute to existing knowledge about the way guilt is felt and expressed. They suggest future research on the topic of the expression of guilt and how it is altered in disease, and potential treatment or diagnostic targets for individuals with unhealthy levels of guilt.

Available for download on Thursday, October 13, 2022