M. L. Hoffman is an American psychologist specializing in developmental psychology and a professor emeritus at New York University. The focus of his work, as he explains it, is emotional and moral development and the interaction between the two, with emphasis on the interaction of empathy with guilt, sympathy, empathetic anger and feelings of injustice. Within this study, he has developed a theory of the stages of guilt, a theory that indicates a background in Freudian theory and the behaviorist approach to psychology, such as may be demonstrated by behaviorists' adherence to the tabula rosa doctrine that holds that human babies are born with undeveloped cognition and personality, which comprises a "blank slate" or a tabula rosa.
To define and discuss what guilt is, according to Hoffman, guilt is an intrinsic emotion and cognitive construct that both indicates wrongdoing and inhibits wrongdoing. Cognitive experience generated by a person's conscience is an expression of thoughts indicating that the person has failed in living up to their ego Ideal, or ideal self. Emotional experience generated by a person's emotions is an expression of feelings indicating that the person has inflicted harm, whether intentional or unintentional harm. Thus cognitive and emotional guilt indicate that a person has done wrong. The development of emotional guilt feelings can inhibit a person from doing future harm or from failing to attain the goals of their ego Ideal, or ideal self, in future. In unhealthy guilt, guilt inhibits to a hyper-acute degree and may prohibit the person from attempting to attain their ideal self through a sense of foregone failure; may prohibit the person from a natural expression of their self; may prohibit the development of intimacy with others. Cognitive guilt thoughts and emotional guilt feelings can be healthy or unhealthy.
Unhealthy guilt is caused by unkind, careless, cruel, or outright brutal people who focus corrective or reprimanding comments on the person of the child rather than focusing such comments on the wrong behavior of the child. Focusing such comments on the wrong behavior of the child can lead to a healthy sense of guilt that will lead the child to do less harm while focusing such comments on the person of the child ("You're stupid." "I can't trust you." etc) will lead to a pervasive sense of guilt from responsibility for having done harm or for continually doing harm that cannot be avoided nor be rectified by making amends.
Hoffman's four stages of guilt address Infancy, Early Childhood, Middle Childhood, Adolescence to Adulthood.
Infancy, characterized by non-perception: Since, according to Hoffman's theoretical psychological background, infants have no sense of identity or of otherness (another person, a non-I identity for another), being a tabula rosa, infants can have no sense of the effect of their behavior on others, no sense of having hurting another, therefore making it impossible for infants to have thoughts or feelings of guilt over having hurt someone.
Early Childhood, characterized by physicality: Young children have developed to the level of perceiving their own identity as separate selves, and others as separate selves, but have as yet, according to Hoffman's theoretical background, developed no cognitive understanding nor any emotional empathy with another's inner state. Consequently, while young children do feel guilt over hurting someone physically, they yet have no guilt over having caused emotional harm.
Middle Childhood, characterized by inner states: Middle childhood brings perception of other's inner emotional states. Therefore these children develop a sense of guilt over hurting someone emotionally while also developing a sense of guilt over failing to act on someone else's behalf, failing to come to someone's aid, which, in a side note, might be said to be an early indicator of empathy and to correspond to the third stage of Hoffman's Four Stages of Empathy.
Adolescence to Adulthood, characterized by abstract universalities: Cognitive perception has developed to the level that a person can perceive abstracts concepts of identity and suffering that have a universal commonality. The person can therefore feel guilt over the existence of general harm as exemplified by such things as world hunger, poverty, enslavement, sexual abduction, and oppression.
Hoffman's asserts that cognitive and emotional guilt, along with indicating and inhibiting wrongdoing, can lead to empathetic action based on moral perception of abstract universalities of harm done by individuals, collective groups or collective societies (historian Page Smith called this last one "social psychosis"). Related to this, Hoffman says of Stage Four in his Four Stages of Empathy:
Empathy may also be found with respect to entire groups of people (the poor, the oppressed, etc.) and thus transcend immediate experience.
Martin L. Hoffman’s theories of empathy and guilt have been influential in the study of the development of human psychology. While he has his critics, his basic theory of the development of guilt has proven resilient among the community of academic social scientists and psychologists. According to Hoffman, children develop a sense of guilt over the course of their development. Those stages are as follows:
Infancy: Infants have not yet had the time to develop mentally and have no concept of complex feelings like guilt;
Early Childhood: Children have still not developed a full sense of guilt because they have no sense of how their actions affect the feelings of others, only the physical effects;
Middle Childhood: Children are now developing a sense of how their actions affect the emotions of others. They are beginning to feel guilty for making others sad, which is distinct from guilt over causing physical pain;
Adolescence to Adulthood: During this phase, which extends roughly from the ages of 13 to 19, children are developing an understanding of abstract concepts like suffering and the sense of having failed to act to alleviate another person, especially another adolescent’s, suffering. For example, standing by while another child is subjected to bullying can – or should – invoke feelings of guilt on the part of the child teenager who witnesses the act but does nothing to stop it.
By early adulthood, according to Hoffman, the human brain has evolved to the extent that people develop a sense of guilt under the appropriate circumstances.
According to Hoffman, interpersonal guilt -- which he defines as “ . . . a painful feeling of disesteem for oneself, usually accompanied by a sense of urgency, tension, and regret, that results from empathic feeling for someone in distress, combined with awareness of being the cause of that distress,” represents the maturation of the child into an adult and is essential for the proper functioning of a community. The purpose or function of guilt, then, involves the avoidance of negative emotional sensations. In his book Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice, he writes:
“To keep from feeling guilty, a person can avoid carrying out harmful acts, or, having committed such an act, he make reparation to the victim in the hope of undoing the damage and decreasing the feeling of guilt.”
One’s emotional well-being, in other words, is integrally connected to one’s ability to empathize with others and to experience feelings of guilt over actions that harm, emotionally and/or physically, others.