Empathy-Based Pathogenic Guilt, Pathological Altruism, and Psychopathology

Lynn E. O’Connor, Jack W. Berry, Thomas B. Lewis and David J. Stiver

in Pathological Altruism

Published in print December 2011 | ISBN: 9780199738571
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199918669 | DOI:
Empathy-Based Pathogenic Guilt, Pathological Altruism, and Psychopathology

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This chapter discusses the relationship between implicit empathy-based guilt, pathogenic guilt, and altruism. Upon witnessing pain or suffering in another, the empathy system is alerted, almost as if we were suffering ourselves. We then want to take action to relieve the suffering we are witnessing. Sometimes, this leads directly to normal, appropriate altruistic behaviors. However, errors in cognition related to causality often lead to dysfunction. When we falsely believe that we caused the suffering we witness, or falsely believe that we have the means to relieve it, our empathy-based guilt tends to become pathogenic and leads to pathological altruism. An unrealistic explanation of pain and suffering that is witnessed is a common cognitive distortion found in mental disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder. In summary, the chapter proposes that faulty cognition combined with empathy-based guilt is a primary source of pathological altruism.

Keywords: altruism; pathology; survivor guilt; guilt

Chapter.  10163 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Social Psychology

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