Feelings of guilt in the general adult population: prevalence, intensity and association with depression

Psychol Health Med. 2021 Oct;26(9):1143-1153. doi: 10.1080/13548506.2020.1859558. Epub 2020 Dec 9.


To feel guilty can motivate for prosocial behavior but may also lead to negative health-related outcomes. The aim of this study was to provide epidemiological information on guilt feelings in the German general adult population. Based on findings from a nation-wide telephone survey (n=1,003 adultsaged 18+ years), we calculated weighted point prevalence rates for guilt feelings and used multivariable logistic regression analyses to evaluate the association between the guilt feelings and covariates. Prevalence of current guilt feelings was 10.6% (95%-CI=8.7-12.6). About one fourth of the adults with current guilt feelings rated the intensity of their feelings as 'rather strong' or 'very strong'. To feel guilty was unrelated to age, sex and education, but significantly associated with depression. The weighted prevalence of guilt feelings in adults with major depression was 37.4% (95%-CI=26.2-48.7) compared to 8.1% (95%-CI=6.4-9.9) in adults without. A substantial part of the German adult population is confronted with guilt feelings. Feeling guilty seems to be less dependent on rather global socio-demographic characteristics than on others factors like depression. More efforts have to be made to identify those specific circumstances, under which feelings of guilt lead to adverse health-related outcomes and to provide corresponding treatment approaches.

Keywords: Depression; adults; depressive disorder; general population; guilt; major depression; prevalence; risk factors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Depression* / epidemiology
  • Depression* / psychology
  • Germany / epidemiology
  • Guilt*
  • Humans
  • Prevalence