People who are primed with guilt subsequently experience greater pleasure as compared to people who are not primed with guilt, say Kelly Goldsmith, Assistant Professor at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, and her colleagues, in their study published in the Journal of Marketing Research.
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.
AdvertisementHowever, 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, pleasure'.
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'.
Study 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.
Study 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.
Finally, 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 consumption'.
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.
Source: 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.
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