Guilt is typically associated
with negative emotion, so, one might believe that experiencing guilt during
consumption (say, a calorie laden luscious chocolate bar) reduces pleasure.
Earlier studies on emotions, too, suggest that priming guilt should have a
negative effect on the pleasure experienced from consumption.
However, many products that
induce guilt are associated with heightened enjoyment - remember the term
'guilty pleasures'? This fact led the researchers of the present study to
investigate the possibility that 'when the consumption context activates guilt,
it could heighten the expectation for, and subsequently the experience of,
They conducted a six part study to demonstrate that 'the activation of guilt, a
negative emotion, enhances the pleasure experienced from hedonic consumption'.
Study 1 involving 103 participants
demonstrated that activating the concept of guilt increases actual pleasure
from hedonic consumption even when the guilt is entirely disentangled from the
pleasure source. This task required participants to unscramble 16 sentences. In
the 'guilt' test group, eight of the sentences contained words that were
semantically related to guilt. In the next phase, each participant received an
unmarked plastic cup containing chocolate candies. On contacting them after a
few days, participants in the test group reported liking the candy
significantly more than participants in the control group and were even ready
to pay more for them.
In Study 2, 40 women were randomly
assigned magazines related to health thus manipulating guilt, and then asked to
consume a chocolate candy bar that was clearly unhealthy. The results showed
that this increased pleasure from consumption is obtained even when people
associate the guilt with the consumption object.
The authors thus confirmed that
activating guilt increases the pleasure experienced from consumption.
Study 3 was about the effect of
experiencing guilt on pleasure felt by eating chocolates. Results showed that
guilt, (but probably not other types of negative emotion), leads to the increase in pleasure.
The three studies combined thus show
that 'activating actual feelings of guilt all increased the pleasure
that consumers derived from actual hedonic experiences'.
4 on 58 subjects supported the hypothesis of the investigators that a
cognitive association exists between guilt and pleasure, that is, the concept
of guilt makes pleasure related cognitions more accessible.
5 extends these findings beyond the domain of food consumption, to show that
the effect of guilt on pleasure
replicates in other domains of hedonic consumption.
Here, 64 women not in
committed relationship were manipulated as in previous four studies regarding
guilt and were presented with a task labeled 'Finding Romance Online' wherein
they were asked to review 5 online male profiles on a scale of 0 to 100; then
they replied to the question - 'Are you more interested in online dating
now than you were before you started this study?' As expected, the test group reported enjoying reviewing the
online profiles significantly more than participants in the control group.
Study 6 tested the effect of guilt on hedonic experiences vs. utilitarian
consumption. 188 participants were randomly assigned to one of four
between-participants conditions based on a 2 (guilt versus neutral) and 2
(video type: hedonic versus utilitarian) design.
Here too, participants in the 'guilt' group reported enjoying the
hedonic video significantly more than participants in the other groups.
The investigators believe that
their study has important marketing implications. By understanding of how guilt
relates to pleasure, and how that relationship affects consumer judgments, 'marketers of hedonic services or products might
benefit from highlighting the guilty aspects of their goods in addition to, or
perhaps even instead of, just the pleasurable aspects associated with
The study may also be important to
the policy makers for 'designing communications intended to curtail consumer
interest in potentially harmful types of hedonic consumption (e.g., drinking;
drug and tobacco use)'.
The authors conclude - 'The
findings presented here offer a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how
guilt relates to pleasure, and how that relationship affects consumers'
judgments'. They, however, recommended further studies to test the boundaries
of these effects.
Goldsmith K., Cho E. K., Dhar R.
When Guilt Begets Pleasure: The Positive Effect of a Negative Emotion. Journal
of Marketing Research: Vol. 49, No. 6, pp. 872-881.