Guilt-Proneness Predicts Moral Behavior

A psychologist working with Colorado law enforcement job applicants read about research from Taya Cohen, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory and Carnegie Bosch Junior Faculty Chair, and sought out a scientific discussion with her. From that chat arose the idea for Cohen to assist him with surveying law-enforcement candidates for character. Specifically, she and coauthors including Tepper School of Business doctoral student Yeonjeong Kim, Ph.D. candidate in organizational behavior and theory, provided a handful of questions to help to measure character fitness for employment.

“This is the first time we’ve had job applicants do this,” Cohen said of this research, published in Personality and Individual Differences in January and entitled “Guilt-proneness is a marker of integrity and employment suitability.” Abigail T. Panter of the University of North Carolina and psychologist Kenyon Jordan of Denver were also coauthors. “This is a correlational study with a high-stakes sample,” Cohen said.

Some 155 public-safety applicants in Colorado underwent screening that included the coauthors’ subset of questions on guilt proneness, which indicates the extent to which a person would feel bad about his or her behavior after doing something wrong. One sample question was “After realizing you have received too much change at a store, you decide to keep it because the sales clerk doesn’t notice. What is the likelihood that you would feel uncomfortable about keeping the money?”

The research found low levels of guilt proneness were associated with moving citations and motor-vehicle accidents within the previous five years, and nearly one-third of the applicants who scored low on the guilt proneness scale reported being fired from a previous job. In fact, the job applicants who scored at the 10th percentile or below were deemed unsuitable to hire.

“I think everybody should try to ask questions or determine someone’s guilt proneness, the trait,” Cohen said. “I don’t think asking these questionnaire items or self-reports is appropriate in all settings. It certainly works in some. And this paper suggests, even in this high-stakes setting of law enforcement, where people were very motivated to make a positive impression, we still saw variability and a distribution in this population.

“In questionnaires the data varies from sample to sample, making it hard to determine what the threshold should be for labeling someone as ‘low’ or ‘high’ on this character trait. So we need to develop other methods, such as interview techniques, to complement the questionnaires and get around some of the problems with self-reports.”

Cohen, whose recent work delves deeply into the framework of character of workers, wrote an essay for Scientific American Mind for summer 2016 about the traits businesses should seek in job candidates. Spotting these qualities isn’t easy for most businesses, but she tries to break them into categories where studies show results: honesty and humility, conscientiousness, and guilt proneness. “Guilt proneness is at the intersection of the two, and at the heart of character,” she said.

In another study, she and Kim are finding preliminary evidence of certain kinds of interview questions that better reveal moral character. This new work could conceivably provide employers with tools to quickly, accurately and inexpensively assess candidates for relevant, critical character attributes — not only in public safety, but banking, customer service, healthcare and more.


Yeonjeong Kim, Ph.D. candidate in organizational behavior and theory

Taya Cohen, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory, Carnegie Bosch Junior Faculty Chair