Survivor's Guilt as a medical condition:
Are there any studies that have addressed this?
There have been many studies on Survivor's Guilt, in fact Survivor's Guilt or Syndrome; known as concentration camp syndrome or KZ syndrome, was a recognised condition in the DSM, it has been removed and replaced as a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
...where people seem to feel guilty to have survived and feel a sense of responsibility for those who perished. What is the psychological basis behind this?
The concept of social guilt:
An approach to guilt as a social, rather than individual process. Survivor's guilt is borne from human beings, as a social species, as opposed to being an individual cognitive crisis. It has been demonstrated that guilt serves as a social emotional safety net; ensuring the strong protect the weaker, an important dynamic for the survival of our species.
Multiple sets of empirical research findings on guilt are reviewed to
evaluate the view that guilt should be understood as an essentially
social phenomenon that happens between people as much as it happens
inside them. Guilt appears to arise from interpersonal transactions
(including transgressions and positive inequities) and to vary
significantly with the interpersonal context. In particular, guilt
patterns appear to be strongest, most common, and most consistent in
the context of communal relationships, which are characterized by
expectations of mutual concern. Guilt serves various
relationship-enhancing functions, including motivating people to treat
partners well and avoid transgressions, minimizing inequities and
enabling less powerful partners to get their way, and redistributing
emotional distress (1)
Effects of being spared:
The concept that random as opposed to deserved misfortune serves to motivate human beings to strive harder, in accord with an appreciation of their good fortune, at having been spared.
This case refers to the effects of arbitrary redundancies within the workplace, but still illustrates the effects of survivor's guilt.
This study explored the effects of layoffs on survivors. We assessed subjects' work performance as a function of whether a co-worker had been laid off and the circumstances of that layoff. Consistent with equity theory, subjects worked harder when they believed that a co-worker's dismissal was based on a random process rather than on the relative merits of their and their co-worker's prior performance. Data drawn from questionnaires lent further support to equity theory as an explanation of these results. (2)
Guilt of being spared:
In some circumstances guilt may be borne in the individual being saved, at the seeming expense of another individual (this is most clearly defined in the holocaust "Selection Parades"), more subtle in the case of escaping a fire and being unable to rescue another in the process. In other cases it may stem from decisions, which resulted in the loss of a loved one, where the survivor feels the guilt of helping to change the course of that person's life, even though they would have no real knowledge that it would lead to that person's death.
Exaggerated sense of responsibility:
It seems the survivors over exaggeration one's human abilities in the face of tragedy. Overlooking our human frailties and utter powerlessness in some situations. Personalising the death of another; as if they could somehow have made a diFference, coupled with the concept, of why am I more deserving than another?. The relief of being saved is mixed with guilt at the loss of others and apprehension (possibly a form of dissociation) of it could have been me.
Disruption of the grief process:
In cases where people lose close ones, the grief process is disrupted; conflicting emotions surrounding grief can be amplified for example the relief of freedom felt when a young man's father dies and he feels he is an autonomous being; flooded by guilt at feeling this, in the face of such disaster.
Long term effects:
This sense of guilt can increase, rather than become ameliorated, over time.
The psychological damage from Survivor's Syndrome can be passed onto the next generation.
The stigma of KZ-syndrome is present in a second generation in different forms: personality disturbances, emotional and/or social immaturity, social disadaptation, higher frequency of neurotic states, divorce, alcoholism, and suicide. The camp stress has left in human nature traces so painful that they cannot disappear when the generation of former prisoners is gone. (4)
(1) Guilt: An interpersonal approach.
Baumeister, Roy F.; Stillwell, Arlene M.; Heatherton, Todd F.
(2)Layoffs, Equity Theory, and Work Performance: Further Evidence of the Impact of Survivor Guilt
Joel Brockner et al doi: 10.2307/256193
(3) The Sense of Guilt within Holocaust Survivors
Ruth Jaffe http://www.jstor.org/stable/4466613
(4) The evolution of mental disturbances in the concentration camp syndrome (KZ-syndrom).