The Pleasure of Guilt

Amid celebration and merriness, holidays have a certain facility for inspiring feelings of guilt: did I eat too much food? Did I find the right gifts and give them to the right people? Did I meet my New Year's resolutions? And do I have good ones for the coming year? To borrow from Emerson: Guilt is in the saddle, and rides mankind.

It makes intuitive sense that such feelings would cast a pall on the season's good cheer. How can we enjoy what's good when we're worried over our guilt? In a recent survey, participants were asked when they would enjoy a dessert more: when they felt guilty consuming it versus when they felt no guilt. An overwhelming majority of respondents (94%) indicated that the dessert would be more enjoyable without guilt.

However, research undertaken with my colleagues Kelly Goldsmith and Eunice Kim at the Yale Center for Customer Insights finds otherwise. Guilt does not adversely affect enjoyment. Quite the contrary, we've found that guilt may be a key mechanism for enhancing pleasure.

We conducted a series of five experiments to test the relationship between guilt and pleasure, and in every instance we found that those who felt guilty also experienced the greatest enjoyment.

In the first three surveys, a control group was given neutral tasks and then asked to sample decadent, chocolate candy, while the treatment group was primed with guilt-inducing tasks and asked to sample the same candy. The guilt-inducing tasks included:

  1. Unscrambling sentences that included words related to guilt;
  2. Viewing and describing popular healthy living magazines;
  3. Describing three to five instances in which participants had felt guilty.

In every instance, and by substantial margins, the guilt-burdened participants expressed greater enjoyment and satisfaction from the sinful treats.

Using three different survey designs allowed a more nuanced probe of the relationship between guilt and pleasure. In one case, we activated the abstract concept of guilt (unscrambled sentences with guilt-related words); in another, we implicitly associated guilt with the consumption activity (viewing health magazines before eating chocolate); and in the third case we evoked personal feelings of guilt (personal anecdote).

In theory, the relationship we have identified between these feelings is explained by a cognitive connection between guilt and pleasure – a connection heavily exploited in our culture: Las Vegas is Sin City, candy companies promote “indulgence,” and so forth. In a fourth experiment, we find evidence supporting a cognitive link between guilt and pleasure.  In a fifth experiment, we showed that this relationship not only affects the pleasure experienced from indulgent foods but can extend into other titillating domains (reviewing online dating profiles).

While these results are quite interesting – feelings of guilt actually enhance subsequent feelings of pleasure – these findings also provide obvious implications for marketers: when designing market communications for pleasurable products or services, they might benefit from highlighting the guilty aspects of their goods in addition to, or even instead of, the pleasurable aspects associated with consumption. These tactics can be paired with guilt-inducing cues during consumption to maximize consumers' pleasure.

Less obvious are the implications for policymakers who are trying to curtail consumption of certain hedonic goods, like cigarettes or alcohol. While associations of guilt may be effective at dissuading non-smokers, for example, from becoming smokers, our findings make clear that these associations could have the counterproductive effect of increasing consumption among those who already smoke. Social marketing organizations should thus be wary of the bifurcated effect of campaigns constructed around guilt.

These findings ultimately contribute important new understanding of how individuals experience pleasure and implications for both these individuals and larger firms. Indeed, guilt may be in the saddle, but from there it spurs us on, from trot to gallop, toward greater pleasure.

Originally posted February 23, 2012

Professor Ravi Dhar

About the author

Ravi Dhar

George Rogers Clark Professor of Management and Marketing & Director of the Center for Customer Insights