Humans are uniquely cooperative and form crucial short- and long-term social bonds between individuals that ultimately shape human societies. The need for such intense cooperation may have provided a particularly powerful selection pressure on the emotional and communicative behaviours regulating cooperative processes, such as guilt. Guilt is a social, other-oriented moral emotion that promotes relationship repair and pro-sociality. For example, people can be more lenient towards wrongdoers who display guilt than towards those who do not. Here, we examined the social consequences of guilt in a novel experimental setting with pairs of friends differing in relationship quality. Pairs of participants took part in a cooperative game with a mutual goal. We then induced guilt in one of the participants and informed the other participant of their partner’s wrongdoing. We examined the outcome using a dictator game to see how they split a joint reward. We found that guilty people were motivated to repair wrongdoing regardless of friendship. Observing guilt in others led to a punishment effect and a victim of wrongdoing punished close friends who appeared guilty more so than acquaintances. We suggest, therefore, that guilt has a stronger function between close friends as the costs of relationship breakdown are greater. Relationship context, therefore, is crucial to the functional relevance of moral emotions.
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