Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Power in Guilt

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Guilt can be defined as doing something which breaks legal or moral laws[1]. However, the feeling of guilt does not always overlap with factual guilt. The study of guilt is difficult, insofar as there are power conflicts between the social construction of guilt and its biological basis. This WikiBook will focus on the perception of guilt through the perspective of (the sociology of) religion (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity), law and biology.

Biology of Guilt[edit]

Diagram showing location of the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex within a human brain.

The neurological root of guilt as a withdrawal emotion remains somewhat ambiguous. However, studies comparing the brain circuitry of individuals with psychiatric disorders against those without such conditions furthered research on the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (vmPFC) and its interactions with the Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC)[2] as a determinant in guilt-specific emotion[3]. A correlation could be drawn between the increased frequency of antisocial behaviour, seemingly void of such mediating emotions as guilt, and the dysfunction of the OFC and vmPFC regions of the brain. With such dysfunctions arising from both injury and developmental abnormalities[2], it could be argued that the role of physical anatomy in guilt perception is conclusive. Even so, any external, social influence must be mediated via such structures[4] and so is inevitably susceptible to their influence.

From an evolutionary perspective, guilt can be seen as an indicator of altruism[5] and so, in turn, a promoter of social cohesion[6][7]. This perspective, however, ignores the individualist advantage that is key to allow guilt to act as an evolutionarily stable strategy in natural selection[8]. The most frequent conclusion is that guilt serves to mediate the behaviour of an individual against transgressive actions, to establish a stable role within their social structures and so optimise the likelihood of survival to reproduce[9].

Perhaps unlike social factors, that vary among different communities, the influence of biology on emotional decision making holds power in its universality and ability to provide empirical evidence. This is, however, a potential issue in terms of research. Whilst the discipline is universal, it is not individually comprehensive. To study the topic of guilt from a solely biological perspective ignores the vast social structures that drive perceptions of guilt across the world[5][7].

Socio-Theological Perspective[edit]

Christianity remains a prominent religion today, with its 2 billion followers[10] projected to rise to nearly 3 billion by 2050[11]. Thus, Christian notions such as guilt and penance remain powerful for many people. One would assume that, with religion being dogmatic, their definitions would be constant, but differences in interpretation of Scripture and outside influences mean that this is not the case. This complicates their study.


The condemnation of (acts of[12][13]) homosexuality has led, for example, to a lot of internal conflict for religious homosexuals[14] and complications for the legalisation of gay marriage[15]. It has, however, been suggested that there is no reason to interpret Scripture as “anti-homosexual”[16]. It may then be the case that it is not necessarily the dogma itself that perpetuates the homophobia in religion, but rather an interpretation assigned by intolerant individuals which has remained dominant today.

The church has historically had to tailor its doctrines to economic and political factors to retain its power; this can be seen in the case of "indulgences" as penance (giving money to the Catholic Church to receive partial pardon of sins), which was encouraged by Pope Innocent III in order to finance his Crusade projects.[17] Indulgences (especially on behalf of the wealthy), however, do not seem to quite fit the usual definition of penance: "...undergoing some penalty as an expression of sorrow for sin or wrongdoing"[18]. A similar argument may be made for the construction of the church Our Lady of Kazan[19], whereby an entrepreneur was convinced by a priest to contribute heavily through being told this would constitute penance.


Religion is a powerful factor that influences people's perceptions of guilt, but its own definitions are arguably heavily influenced by factors like economics, politics, and the prejudices of its interpreters. This makes it harder to arrive at a definite conclusion as to what said definitions are and thus even harder to study them and solve pressing real-world problems.

Legal Perspective[edit]

Legally speaking, there is a distinction between legal guilt and factual guilt. Factual guilt is concerned with the plain fact whether the suspect committed a crime, i.e. broken the law[20], or not. However, in order to convict someone of a crime, it needs to be proven. Therefore, someone can be factually guilty, but without proper evidence, they would be considered legally innocent[21].

The Case of the Norfolk Four[edit]

On July 7, 1997, in Norfolk, Virginia, eighteen-year-old Michelle Bosko was raped and murdered in her apartment. Her body was found by her husband the next day. The first suspect, Danial Williams, confessed after eight hours of interrogation and threats of the death penalty. However, his DNA did not match the crime scene’s and police turned to Joseph Dick, Jr. He confessed under similar circumstances, but his DNA was not a match either. The pattern continued until, seven men were accused of the crime, four of which confessed. Even after the actual killer, Omar Ballard, confessed to having committed the crime alone, the four suspects were charged and the last ones only exonerated in 2016[22].

Surprisingly, ¼ of wrongful convictions involve false confessions. This is mainly due to the psychological tactics police officers use to get confessions via the power imbalance between suspect and interrogator. Often, police officers are over-confident in their ability to tell apart those who are lying or not[23]. Together with long interrogations, threats of harsher punishments, or even promises of leniency, coupled with the provision of false evidence, they are able to get confessions out of innocent victims, either because they see no way out, or they might have become convinced of their own guilt[24]. This conviction can go as far as apologising to the victim's family for a crime one did not commit, as was the case with Joseph Dick[25].

The suspect's changed perspective on their own guilt makes it even more difficult to study. Confessions are not reliable, in or outside the court of law, if the suspects themselves are not sure of the facts anymore. The determination of legal guilt, therefore, needs to rely more on biological evidence than the malleable memory of the suspects.


Whilst biology may have apparent power in its ability to rationalise an ambiguous concept and produce data that is universal to all humans, no matter of location or religion, it would be arrogant to extrude it as the sole influence in guilt and so ignore the power of huge structures (i.e. religion and the legal system) that drive social perceptions of guilt.

Ultimately, no-one specific discipline can produce complete research into the perception of guilt. Such research requires the evaluation of power dynamics that twist both how we perceive guilt in our social communities and then how such perceptions are processed through our biology. Therefore the recognition and critique of sources of power in such disciplines is essential to allow comprehensive and representative research.


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  13. Orthodox Church in America. Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life [Internet]. 1992. "Homosexuality is to be approached as the result of humanity’s rebellion against God, and so against its own nature and well-being. It is not to be taken as a way of living and acting for men and women made in God’s image and likeness. (....) [People with homosexual tendencies] are to seek assistance in discovering the specific causes of their homosexual orientation, and to work toward overcoming its harmful effects in their lives." Available from:
  14. Pietkiewicz, I. and Kołodziejczyk-Skrzypek, M. (2016). Living in Sin? How Gay Catholics Manage Their Conflicting Sexual and Religious Identities. Archives of Sexual Behavior, [online] 45(6), pp.1573-1585. Available at: [Accessed 7 Dec. 2019].
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