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Exploitation of the Sense of Guilt

William Needles, M.D; NEW YORK


The estalishment in infan!" of a pe#$asi$e sense of %uilt &ithin !hild#en is the effe!t in #ea#in% of
influen!es #ou%ht to ea# upon them du#in% thei# ea#liest "ea#s. Whe#eas the e%o and the id a#e
inhe#ited !omponents of the ps"!he, the supe#e%o, and the sense of %uilt &hi!h de#i$es f#om it, a#e
a!'ui#ed and fashioned ane& in the !hild#en of ea!h %ene#ation " t#ainin% and example. The
int#o(e!tion of pa#ental standa#ds, p#e(udi!es, amitions, and p#ohiitions !u#s p#imiti$e impulses
and adapts the !hild to the en$i#onment in &hi!h he is to li$e.
)#eud *+, distin%uished an exte#nal ante!edent to the fo#mation of the supe#e%o-&hen the !hild fi#st
senses that he has e$o.ed the displeasu#e of those upon &hose lo$e and app#o$al his happiness
and !omfo#t depend. Guilt p#ope# a#ises autonomousl" afte# the#e has een an inte#nali/ation of the
pa#ental admonitions, &hi!h !onstitute the p#imiti$e supe#e%o. The supe#e%o, then, stands in #elation
to the e%o as the pa#ent did to the !hild; an" inf#in%ement of its !anons leads to a state of tension
et&een it and the e%o and is expe#ien!ed as a feelin% of %uilt &hi!h se#$es, li.e anxiet", as an
affe!ti$e si%nal u#%entl" #e'ui#in% !essation. )#eud diffe#entiated %uilt that o!!u#s as a #ea!tion to
sinful thou%hts, &ishes, o# feelin%s, f#om the #emo#se that follo&s the pe#pet#ation of a misdeed. 0e
noted fu#the#mo#e that the supe#e%o is mu!h mo#e se$e#e than the pa#ent in so fa# as it punishes not
onl" misdeeds ut su!h sinful intents as thou%hts, &ishes, and feelin%s. )#eud att#iuted the ui'uit"
of the sense of %uilt in man.ind to impulses of hat#ed that a#e moili/ed fo# a!tion, then !u#ed in a
p#o!ess of #enun!iation of instin!tual %#atifi!ation, and displa!ed to the se#$i!e of the puniti$e
supe#e%o fo# dis!ha#%e.
1

To exploit means oth to ma.e enefi!entl" a$ailale *as the !oal in a mine, and, mo#e !ommonl", to
ma.e use of dishono#al" fo# one2s o&n satisfa!tion o# %ain. 3t is in the latte# sense that exploitation
of the sense of %uilt, on!e #e!o%ni/ed, is found to e ex!eedin%l" p#e$alent in ou# so!iet". 3t pe#$ades
all &al.s of life, all so#ts of #elationships et&een people; it has institutional as &ell as pe#sonal
modes of fun!tionin%. The &idesp#ead in!iden!e of the phenomenon estalishes that it is of
sustantial impo#tan!e in human eha$io# and p#ompts in$esti%ation of its o#i%in and histo#", its
moti$ation and mode of ope#ation, its effe!ts on the exploite# and the exploited.
II
Du#in% Wo#ld Wa# 33 &hen the $exin% p#olem of the p#ope# mana%ement of neu#ops"!hiat#i!
!asualties &as often the o!!asion fo# a!#imonious !ont#o$e#s" et&een #e%ula# a#m" ps"!hiat#ists
and those #e!entl" indu!ted f#om !i$ilian life, a 4#itish ps"!hiat#ist &ith extensi$e expe#ien!e
p#esented, not &ithout #elish, his st#ate%" fo# !opin% &ith the !hallen%e &hene$e# he &as !onf#onted
" a tou%h, 2t#eat52em5#ou%h2 ad$e#sa#" &ith &hom he !ould %et no&he#e. 3t &as his &ont delie#atel"
to p#o$o.e his anta%onist until he lost his tempe# and sho&e#ed him &ith ause. 6#omptl" the#eafte#,
the on!e impla!ale offi!e# %a$e him !a#te lan!he to mana%e his !ha#%es as he sa& fit.
3n the !ou#se of one of his $isits to the 7nited States, Kh#ush!he$ &as %#ossl" p#o$o!ati$e and
ausi$e aout the 8me#i!an &a" of life. When some in the audien!e #ea!ted to this &ith
unde#standale indi%nation and #an!o#, he !hided and #ep#oa!hed them se$e#el" fo# thei#
oo#ishness and in!i$ilit" as hosts to a $isitin% di%nita#". Th#ou%hout the #emainde# of his $isit his
audien!es, thou%h no mo#e s"mpatheti! to his $ie&s than the ea#lie# ones had een, t#eated him &ith
the utmost defe#en!e as if th#ou%h identifi!ation &ith the o#i%inal offende#s the" seemed to e atonin%
fo# the 2sin2 " thei# exempla#" eha$io#.
The d#eam of a patient lends itself to a simila# inte#p#etation.
3 am #idin% a ho#se. 3 do somethin% &hi!h !auses him to #ea# and th#o& me. 8s 3 lie on the %#ound,
the ho#se app#oa!hes and li!.s m" !hee.. 3 feel sensuousl" pleased and tell m"self9 23t &as &o#th it:2.
The d#eam is a faithful #ep#odu!tion of a !i#!umstan!e in his !hildhood. Mo#idl" sensiti$e to his
mothe#2s !oldness, he had st#i$en despe#atel" to eli!it some to.en of lo$e f#om he#. 8 de$i!e that had
p#o$ed effe!ti$e &as to na% he# to the point of exaspe#ation. She &ould then e!ome penitentl"
indul%ent.
6atients in anal"sis f#e'uentl" t#" " p#o$o!ation to %oad the anal"st into a displa" of tempe# in the
hope that suse'uentl" he &ill feel #emo#seful and %i$e the patient some of the indul%en!e he
!#a$es. One man, to &hom su!h an inte#p#etation &as %i$en, #eadil" assented that he tended to
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manipulate othe#s in this &a". 0is mothe#, he #e!alled, had often !ont#i$ed to pla" on his emotions in
this manne#.
Mu!h mo#e f#e'uent a#e those instan!es of exploitation of a sense of %uilt &hi!h is inhe#entl"
ope#ati$e to an intense de%#ee in man" indi$iduals. The exploite# une##in%l" app#aises the
$ulne#ailit" of his exploitale $i!tim &hose t#easonale supe#e%o &ill #ende# his e%o at least
a!'uies!ent, if not helplessl" !ompliant.
8 lite#a#" instan!e of this t"pe is Sha.espea#e2s ;ad" Ma!eth &ho, intent on p#oddin% he# $a!illatin%
husand to !ommit the mu#de# of Dun!an, up#aids him.
Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress'd yourself? hath it slept since? / And wakes it now, to
look so green and pale / At what it did so freely? From this time / Such I account thy love Art thou
afeard / !o "e the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that /
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life, / And live a coward in thine own esteem, / #etting 'I dare
not' wait upon 'I would', / #ike the poor cat i' the adage?
$nowing well that her hus"and's 'vaulting am"ition' is strongly countered "y moral revulsion, and "y
his "eing 'too full of the milk of human kindness', she taunts him in words that she knows will stifle
the protests of his conscience and mo"ili%e his resolve to act in accordance with her will
&very analyst in his practice hears of countless instances'in families, "etween friends, in "usiness
relationships'of the flagrant and often systematic inculcation of an unreasona"le "urden of guilt
upon a hapless victim for the profit or convenience of the aggressor
Analysts inevita"ly are o"(ects of this techni)ue of e*ploitation acted out in the transference "y
patients predisposed to engendering a profita"le sense of guilt in others A successful "usinessman
+who regularly falsified his income ta* returns, had "argained for an analytic fee vastly
disproportionate to his income It was his rationali%ation that whatever he did was (ustified "ecause
his profits were reinvested in his "usiness &very service should have a fi*ed price, he declared, and
the practice of scaling fees to accord with differences in income was unconsciona"le -e asserted
that analysts took advantage of supply and demand to charge e*or"itant fees. that a dedicated man
of science should not "e so concerned with material gain It later proved that this man had
considera"le contempt for and guilt a"out his highly profita"le "usiness activities In striving to place
a "urden of guilt on the analyst, he was repeating a method that had served him well in "usiness and
other relationships. in addition, he was seeking "y pro(ection to deny his own unsavory motivations
From lack of e*perience, analysts in training sometimes fail to detect this mode of e*ploitation, and
when they are assailed "y the patient with various charges of callousness, aloofness, complacency,
and the like, lose their analytic composure, "ecome conciliatory, and succum" to the wiles of the
patient
In times of war the military esta"lishment, whose function it is to win the wars, re)uires for this
purpose several armies of men /ecause of the pressure of need, the military must perforce
disregard all "ut the most patent disa"ilities +ie, psychoses, among recruits in their capacity to
withstand the rigors of training and the ordeal of "attle !hat some who appear 'normal' are
psychiatrically deemed sufficiently neurotic, psychopathic, or otherwise unfit for military service is
hotly contested Among them are many inductees who, despite acute awareness of their
vulnera"ilities, are e)ually pho"ic a"out re(ection for service and the su"se)uent dread of "eing
called 'slackers' and cowards !hese pre(udices, in which an unenlightened pu"lic concurs,
constitute in a special way e*ploitation of a sense of guilt 0uring World War I there was widely
displayed an enormous poster of 1ncle Sam as a stern looking gentleman with a piercing glare,
pointing an accusing finger at the passer, with the caption2 '1ncle Sam 3eeds 4ou' What more
graphic representation of an accusatory superego5 In &ngland the white feather, sent to everyone
suspected of evading the draft, served a similar purpose A similar psychological process operates in
those instances of confession under pressure to a crime one never committed
!he influence of organi%ed religion in engendering or promoting a sense of guilt is a highly
controversial su"(ect Among psychoanalysts are those who with Freud consider religion a vestige of
psychic infantilism, and those who find no inconsistency in accepting the tenets of "oth religion and
freudian psychoanalysis 3evertheless there are among religions a host of ta"oos and
commandments, dogmas and rituals, atonements and e*piations which compel those who are
suscepti"le to conform from fear or to suffer the conse)uent sense of guilt
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III
!he o"(ection may "e raised that the military psychiatrist who successfully e*ploited his commanding
officer's sense of guilt was actuated only "y a "enevolent determination to protect his crippled
charges !he poster intended to promote recruitment "y intimidation was, after all, intent on
sustaining the war effort In "oth instances an altruistic motive seems to predominate 6ur concern,
however, is not with the ultimate effect of the maneuver "ut simply with the intent of the e*ploiter in a
dyadic relationship which, in "oth, was to produce a psychic im"alance in a suscepti"le individual
and thus to control his "ehavior !he differentiation we are seeking is "etter illustrated "y citing the
e*ample of the parent who prefers for his own comfort and convenience a docile child to an
enterprising one. or "y contrasting the teacher who e*ploits the curiosity and creativeness of children
to one who deems heretical or su"versive any )uestioning of the 'truths' he propounds
Since something akin to moral "ankruptcy has occurred in our time, it is often maintained that there
are too many individuals without any sense of guilt, and that any measures which would reverse this
trend are (ustifia"le Specifically, it is said that the defective superego of the psychopath can "e most
constructively repaired "y mo"ili%ing and e*ploiting his sense of guilt From the point of view of
society this is reasona"le and lauda"le For the psychopath, however, such measures if they
succeed at all are simply a "rittle conformity, not likely to outlast the pressures "rought upon him
IV
Adaptation is defined as modification of an animal or plant fitting it more perfectly for e*istence under
the conditions of its environment +77, !his definition does not ade)uately account for the process
!he "ird in "uilding a nest, the "eaver in "uilding a dam, does something to the environment which
promotes survival of the individual and the species 0ewey stressed this aspect of the adaptational
process and noted that the higher the form of life, the greater its prevalence +8, In a detailed study of
adaptation as a function of the conflict9free ego, -artmann also distinguished autoplastic and
alloplastic modes of adaptation, and called attention to a third form2 seeking a new environment as
the "asis for more effective performance +:,
In so far as e*ploitation of the sense of guilt controls the "ehavior of another individual and directs it
into channels desired "y the e*ploiter, it is a type of alloplastic adaptation "rought a"out "y
modification of the human environment Since the device depends for its effectiveness on a relatively
recent ac)uisition of man, the superego, it suggests that the device itself is a recent development in
the life cycle of the human race It may accordingly "e profita"le to try to esta"lish its historical
antecedents
&*ploitation of one creature "y another is as old and as constant a feature of "iological functioning
as is e*ploitation of the natural physical environment Side "y side with the "ird that "uilds a nest and
the "eaver that "uilds a dam is the cuckoo that lays its eggs in the nests of other "irds, and the ant
that a"ducts ants of another species into slavery ;an, to survive, is compelled to e*ploit all realms
of nature'mineral, vegeta"le, and animal'and despite his aspirations to the contrary, is prone to
e*ploit his fellow man as well 1ntil recent times "rute force and physical domination prevailed, and
still do A highly developed, truly democratic society, with its emphasis on the dignity of man and
professed e)uality under the law, re)uires the development and ela"oration of new and more highly
refined psychological measures to control human minds 6f these, e*ploitation of the sense of guilt is
not the least important
As we know, the sense of guilt is attri"uta"le to the mo"ili%ation of aggressive energies generated "y
frustration of instinctual drives, which su"se)uently are invested in the superego As stated "y Freud,
'< the more virtuous a man is, the more severe and distrustful =the superego> < so that ultimately it
is precisely those people who have carried saintliness furthest who reproach themselves with the
worst sinfulness' +?, A chart of the development of the human race, "ased on the degree of
instinctual gratification, would show an ever9increasing renunciation, and conse)uently more and
more frustration, in the progression from prehistoric times to the present Assuming that the 'original
sin' was that of patricide, we can further assume that primitive man had su"se)uently to give up
other su"stantial gratifications of aggressive and se*ual drives such as homicide, infanticide,
canni"alism, human sacrifice, incest, rape Further advances in civili%ation "rought additional
restrictions2 for e*ample, monogamous marriage and enforced celi"acy outside the marital state
Saint Augustine, who considered not only carnal desires "ut @sthetic pleasure as sinful, is
representative of the increasing trend toward su"(ugation and degradation of instinct, a trend
revitali%ed at a later period "y the Auritans Simply stated, the history of man is a chronicle of more
and more things that he is made to feel guilty a"out
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!he summation of strictures "y the superego on the instincts is seen to have reached a degree
which led some individuals to assume responsi"ility and guilt for the state of things in the universe
/oth "efore and after Spino%a's insistence that all e*istence is em"raced in one su"stance, 3ature,
voices were raised in dissent !he Breek dramatist's '"ut "est of all is never to have "een "orn' and
the Breek legends which picture the gods as lecherous, conniving, vindictive, and deceitful are
evidence of this !he Arometheus myth can similarly "e interpreted as protest against gods who
"egrudge man his ingenuity and thwart his efforts to tame the ruthless forces of nature !he
invention of the devil solved for some the pro"lem of evil in the world "y a"solving Bod of the
responsi"ility 6thers, like Coltaire, with his scathing denunciation of this "est of all possi"le worlds,
or ;ark !wain, with his tragic view of life under a faDade of humor, would seemingly have preferred
to return the world to its maker for repairs +as would -elmholt% the imperfect structure and function of
the eye, It is as if nature had spawned a cosmic superego that o"serves and (udges it, as the
superego (udges the ego 1nlike Bod, who after the creation contemplated the products of his la"ors
and found them 'good', these critics are more impressed "y the cruelty, the pain, and the suffering
that result from the operation of "lind forces -owever, the ultimate refinement of the sense of guilt is
the assumption of personal responsi"ility for this order It appears, for e*ample, in such phenomena
as revulsion against killing animals not only as a sport in hunting "ut even as a means of
sustenance, in antivivisection despite the value of animal e*perimentation in con)uering disease,
and in vegetarianism In many instances, such often fanatic aversions to demonstra"le "iological
laws are idiosyncratic ta"oos imposed "y the superego'individual or collective'to deny,
ritualistically, oral9destructive drives /ut this need not always "e the case
8

In the development of the individual, separation an*iety is succeeded "y castration an*iety which, in
turn, is supplanted "y moral an*iety In phylogeny, the fear of annihilation and the need for security
are the overriding primitive factors, followed later "y a phase in which the influence of the superego
prevails and the sense of guilt "ecomes increasingly pervasive &*ploitation of the sense of guilt as
an adaptational process results then from the favora"le convergence of two complementary
elements 6ne is an innate human tendency to e*ploit others. the other, guilt9ridden e*ploita"le
victims
In accordance with the mechanism of overdetermination +not only in the formation of dreams and
symptoms "ut also of human "ehavior,, and on the "asis of the principle of multiple functioning +7E,
+which invokes the operation of several psychic agencies to account for a given psychic end9
product,, one would anticipate with a fair degree of certainty additional uses and meanings that
derive from e*ploiting the sense of guilt in others. and, in fact, evidences of them are readily
discerni"le !he e*ploiter discharges his aggressive drives in provocations, attacks, and a"uses -e
defends his ego from an*iety with regard to o"(ectiona"le impulses in himself "y pro(ecting them
onto a victim and attacking them there /y rationali%ing his e*ploitations as a striving to correct
improper attitudes or "ehavior in another, he appears virtuous and deserving to himself
!hat e*ploitation can serve as a mechanism of defense makes clear what -artmann has o"served in
another connection2 '< the same process of defense )uite commonly serves the twofold purpose of
ac)uiring mastery over the instincts and of reaching an accommodation with the e*ternal world' +F,
!he process of adaptation is "y no means limited to the conflict9free area of the ego for its
achievement
!he genetic principle leads us to assume that a characteristic of the type we are discussing must "e
derived from definite e*periences during childhood which render one individual more inclined to
resort to psychological modes of e*ploitation than another, and to develop an acutely sensitive
perception for the suscepti"ility of others to such e*ploitation !he fairly common and amusing
spectacle of a child who has hurt himself ceasing to cry as the pain wears off, only to "urst into tears
again when an adult capa"le of offering comfort appears, provides evidence that something akin to
psychological manipulation is already operative at an early age It seems plausi"le that a child may
"e conditioned to e*ploit the feelings of others "y o"serving repeatedly that after provoking an
out"urst of anger in or physical punishment "y a parent, the parent "ecomes unusually kind and
indulgent Ahysical weakness, real or fancied, may likewise predispose a child toward psychological
e*ploitation of others, (ust as such weakness seems to stimulate in other children a compensatory
striving for intellectual or artistic superiority !he child of a parent who e*ploits him may, "y
identification, perpetrate on others a method of which he himself had formerly "een the victim. or
having noticed in himself the se)uence of uncontrolled "ehavior'remorse'atonement "y good
deeds, he may "y e*perimental pro(ection find that he can often count on eliciting a similar response
in others
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While identification may play a significant role in creating the psychological e*ploiter, it seems more
specifically that it is likely to determine (ust who is to "e e*ploited !hus, while the prosecuting
attorney who identifies himself with authority and the forces of law and order will e*ert himself to
e*ploit a sense of guilt in the criminal in order to get him to confess, an attorney who identifies
himself with the hard9pressed criminal, and in his choice of a profession devotes himself to defending
criminals, will seek rather to e*ploit the sense of guilt of the (udge and the (ury We need to know
much more a"out the e*ploitative character "efore we can fully account for it We now can only
surmise how an arch9e*ploiter develops the instinct to detect a suita"le victim and his vulnera"le
spot as unerringly as the wasp finds the only host in which she must lay her eggs !urning to the
other participants in this relationship, it is highly pro"a"le that the suscepti"ility to e*ploitation of the
sense of guilt is most easily activated among individuals who are depressive, o"sessional, or
masochistic
!he capacity of some individuals heroically to espouse and defend what reason dictates in the face
of denunciation, punishment, social ostracism, rests in no small measure on the soundness of an
ade)uate superego, sustained in its values and goals "y an independently strong ego Although the
esta"lishment of a superego represents an internali%ation of an originally e*ternal authority for the
discrimination "etween right and wrong, good and "ad, few, if any, mature individuals "ring the
process to completion !he individual most closely appro*imating a state of autonomy would "e one
endowed with the superego of the e*ceptional character (ust cited. most removed from it, those who
lend themselves too readily to e*ploitation of their sense of guilt "ecause of dependency on the
moral (udgment of others +G,
VI
At first glance the mechanism of e*ploitation of the sense of guilt, in so far as it influences and
controls the "ehavior of another person "y provocation, resem"les masochistic provocation +G,, +H,
In masochistic provocation, however, the aim is generally considered to "e punishment, humiliation,
frustration "ecause of the pleasure to which they are a precondition, whereas in e*ploitation of the
sense of guilt we assume that the aim is to e*act o"edience, indulgence, special consideration !he
masochist seeks sadistic love. the e*ploiter, ac)uiescence and su"mission It is possi"le, and
perhaps common, for "oth mechanisms to occur in the same individual as one or the other of his
sadomasochistic components come to the fore !hus, the masochist "y provocation o"tains the
flagellation he craves, "ut he may go on from there to a further "enefit, counting on a display of his
wounds to arouse guilt, compassion, and atonement in his assailant
!he common element of playing on the emotions of another person to gain indulgence invites
comparison to what Ale*ander +7, called '"ri"ing of the superego', in which, after the superego has
"een appeased "y sufficient atonement, it relents enough to permit reindulgence ;anipulation plays
a role in "oth processes -owever, in "ri"ing of the superego it is an intrapersonal process in which
the superego is appealed to &*ploitation of the sense of guilt, on the contrary, is a personal process
in which another individual is the o"(ect of appeal 6ne seeks indulgence from his superego. the
other, in accordance with the dictates of his superego, seeks indulgence from an individual
Footnotes
7
-ow much more common this is than can "e surmised without psychoanalytic insight, and what
unlikely guises it may assume, Freud showed in his studies, Iriminals from a Sense of Built and
!hose Wrecked "y Success +J,
8
&issler considers the vegetarianism of da Cinci to "e a reaction9formation to canni"alistic fantasies
and considers it a sign of depression +K, 6ne wonders, without discounting the importance of this
unconscious factor, whether such contemplative vegetarians as da Cinci and Beorge /ernard Shaw
did not also (udge the world and find it wanting
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