Self-Harm Focus Leads to Greater Collective Guilt: The Case of the U.S.-Iraq Conflict



Collective guilt from harm one's group has caused an out-group is often undermined because people minimize or legitimize the harm done (i.e., they generate exonerating cognitions). When a group action has harmed both the in-group and an out-group, focusing people on “self-harm”—ways in which the in-group has harmed itself—may elicit more collective guilt because self-harm is less likely to be exonerated. In Study 1, American participants who focused on how the invasion of Iraq had harmed the United States expressed greater collective guilt over harm inflicted on the people of Iraq than those who focused on Iraqi suffering. Study 2 showed that this effect is due to reductions in exonerating cognitions among people focused on self-harm. We consider the implications of these findings for intergroup reconciliation, particularly in situations where two groups have been involved in open conflict.