Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Innocent Guilt

Humans (and possibly some other primates) are "moral agents" precisely because we have the power of introspection. We can self-analyze our own minds and decision processes, and by extension, those of others. ("I know that you know that I know that ...") For that reason, we are capable of guile - deceitful cunning or duplicity, as well as guilt - the feeling we have done wrong.

The German word Schadenfreude ("damage joy") has been adopted into English to describe the often guilty pleasure we feel when, through no action of our own, someone we do not like suffers a well-deserved punishment. When that "Don't taze me bro" guy got tazed recently, millions of us felt a certain pleasure in his pain. Objectively, the campus security officers over-reacted when they tazed him and most of his screaming was an act, but the pleasure we felt was quite real.

The other side of the coin is something I'm going to call "innocent guilt". By that I mean an unjustified feeling of guilt by a totally innocent person. There is a German equivalent, Unschuldige Schuld, but I am not familiar enough with German to know if that word carries the same meaning. (Perhaps Jurgen can help in this regard.)


Here is an example: My neighbor called me about a problem with his computer. Something was wrong with his keyboard, he thought, because when he pressed a key twice in succession, it would only type a single character. He could press different keys as fast as he wanted and they would all type OK, but if he typed "ee" or "44" he would only get a single "e" or "4". To get a character to repeat, he had to wait a second and press the key again.

He had called various help lines with no solution. I watched him demonstrate the problem and instantly figured it out. I opened the Control Panel and selected Handicapped Access and noticed that an option called "filter keys" had been selected. I deselected it and his problem was solved! (This feature is for people who have the shakes or who hold a key down too long. )

I did not know about these features beforehand. The possible association of his problem with a handicapped access feature came to me as if "God" had shouted it in my ear.

My neighbor's thanks were genuine, but I had a feeling they were tinged with jealousy about my superior knowledge of computers. Immediately afterwards, he came over to my house and gave me some unsolicited advice about my golf cart battery.

Then, I began to feel guilty! A few weeks prior he had given me the key to his house so I could look after his dog while he was gone for the day. Perhaps he thought I had taken that opportunity to plant the problem in his PC and later fix it to become a hero? (Like the fireman who sets a fire so he can later be a hero for putting it out.)


A similar situation occurred some years ago when I visited my brother in California. As I arrived, his business partner was in a tizzy about a packet of important papers a messinger was supposed to have dropped off at his house some hours earlier. I suggested the messenger might have dropped it off on the front porch of an adjacent house. We checked and it was not there. I then suggested it might be at the same address on a parallel block. (Again the idea came as if "God" had shouted it in my ear.) He was hesitant to walk around the block for fear the messenger might come while he was gone, but I talked him into in. Sure enough, the packet was at the right address on the wrong street.

He thanked me, of course, but I had the guilty feeling he might have suspected that it was I who, seeing the packet on his front porch when I arrived, had secretly moved it to the parallel block as a trick and so I could be the "hero". (Later, at lunch, he joked about being a member of the club for "abused children of engineer fathers". I, like his father, am an engineer. He was a comedy writer, many of whom seem to believe good writers have had to have painful childhoods.)


A third case happened some years ago when, at lunch, a co-worker mentioned he had seen a TV program about "auras". He was convinced some people could see glowing areas of color on parts of other people's bodies. As I recall, yellow and gold were good signs and red or black was bad. I am totally skeptical of such powers, but, when I squinted my eyes a bit and tried to imagine colors on parts of his body, I saw a distinct red glowing area on his right arm. I mentioned it to him and we laughed.

The next time I saw him, his right arm was in a sling. He had fallen and hurt that very arm! Again, although I had absolutely nothing to do with his injury, I felt guilty. Perhaps, in some odd way he thought I was responsible for his injury?


My personality type, according to the Myers-Briggs system, is a relatively rare "ENTP" (Extrovert, iNtuitive, Thinking, Perceiving). It is named "Inventor" or "Suspector". In my professional and personal lives I often "know" the solution without knowing why! It is as if "God" planted the answer in my brain without any backup reasoning. (Mostly, when I get these brain surges I turn out to be correct, but, when I turn out to be wrong, I have no idea why!)

I wonder if others reading this Blog have had similar "innocent guilt" feelings and experiences. My knowledge of psychology is quite shallow. Are there psychological labels for my feelings of innocent guilt?

Ira Glickstein

1 comment:

joel said...

Ira, you have good reason to feel guilty in these diverse situations. T'is the sin of pride that creates the guilt. You know very well that you are capable of rigging the situation in the ways you invented for the sake of "being the hero." In my former life as a psychologist, I saw many cases of this problem. In women, it often manifests itself as Munchausen's By Proxy. I would recommend that your neighbor hang onto his key if he wants to keep his computer safe from your predations. As for the auras, I would suggest that you stop squinting at your friends. :^P

In my own experience, I've never felt guilty concerning my superhuman powers. At the heat transfer section of Hughes Aircraft, I was known as the shape factor guy. There is a complicated geometric computation necessary in order to determine the weighting factor having to do with the fraction of heat energy passing from one object sitting on the moon's surface to another. The optical instrument used to determine the factor was called a "shape factor button". When the button wan't available, they would call me in to estimate the value by eye. I generally came within a few percent. Far from feeling guilty, I upped the ante with all kinds of dramatic gestures before giving my magical pronouncment. I have no idea how I did what I did, but I enjoyed being the weirdo center of attention. With respect -Joel