Dieters know the feeling well when they are digging into their second slice of cake. Gadget junkies do, too, when they are dropping hundreds of dollars on the latest electronic toy. And even your average Facebook user—who spends nearly eight hours on the site per month—winces a bit from the pang. That feeling is guilt, but not guilt alone. These people are also grinning on the inside.

And they are not just grinning a bit. Guilt is so often linked with pleasure that research by Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, shows that making people feel the slightest bit guilty amplifies whatever pleasure they subsequently indulge.

Goldsmith and her then–doctoral advisor Ravi Dhar, a professor at Yale, first thought to study the link when a co-worker mentioned how she had just joined Weight Watchers. “She said, ‘Gosh, why does everything just taste better when you’re on a diet?’, ” Goldsmith recalls. “That got me and my advisor talking. Does stuff actually taste better when you’re on a diet? Does stuff taste better when you feel guilty eating it?”

It seems like such an obvious connection—after all, they are not called “guilty pleasures” for nothing—but testing it experimentally is another question entirely. Goldsmith and Dhar, along with Eunice Kim Cho, a postdoc at the University of Toronto, set up a series of five experiments to make certain it was guilt that enhanced pleasure and not some other associated emotion.

Sifting Through Emotions
Their first study tested participants’ affinity for a chocolate that they were told was being test-marketed (which it was, so the participants were not familiar with it). But before they could taste the candy, they were semantically primed, a technique widely used by social psychologists to activate concepts and emotions. In this study, half of the participants were given jumbled sentences loaded with words meant to induce guilt—words like remorse, sin, jury, and error—while the others were given neutral, innocuous words. Once they completed that task, the participants were given the chocolate and asked to rate it on a seven-point scale and state how much they would be willing to pay for it. Three days later, Goldsmith and her colleagues followed up with the participants, again asking them to rate the candy.

“Does stuff taste better when you feel guilty eating it?”

Lo and behold, participants who had been primed for guilt both liked the candy more and said they would be willing to pay more for it than those primed with neutral words. Guilt also made the initial pleasurable reaction last longer—the guilt-primed participants remembered liking the candies more than neutral-primed participants.

Since guilty pleasure is often associated with dieting, Goldsmith and her colleagues ran another study, this time priming female participants by showing half of them covers of health-related magazines like Nutrition and the other half covers of neutral magazines like Shutterbug. The participants then wrote a short paragraph about why that magazine is popular. Once primed, they were asked to imagine that they were participating in a chocolate taste-test and were asked how guilty they would feel if they were actually consuming the candy bar. Participants who had been shown the health-related magazine covers reported feeling guiltier than those who had been primed with neutral magazines, illustrating the link between health goals and guilt. Another group was then primed with the same task. Participants who read the health-related magazines reported enjoying the chocolate more.

In a third study, Goldsmith and her colleagues wanted to see if guilt was the only negative emotion that could enhance pleasure. Participants were split into three groups this time—neutral, guilt, and disgust. The latter two groups were asked to describe several instances where they felt either guilty or disgusted. Afterward, everyone participated in the same taste test as in the first study. Guilt-primed participants reported liking the chocolate more than those in the neutral or disgusted prime. In fact, the neutral and disgusted groups reported liking the chocolate the same amount, suggesting that feeling a negative emotion other than guilt did not affect their impression of the candy either positively or negatively.

A fourth study used sentence scrambles like those in the first study to prime participants, who then had to complete word fragments, like E N _ _ _. Participants who were in the neutral prime condition tended to fill in the blanks so the words were similarly neutral, like E N T E R. But participants who had been primed to feel guilty tended toward words with more pleasurable connotations, like E N J O Y.

A final study explored guilty pleasures beyond food-related indulgences. Female participants were again primed with sentence scrambles, but instead of participating in a taste test they were asked to view dating profiles from a website. After viewing five male profiles, they were asked to rate how much they had enjoyed viewing the profiles on a 100-point scale. They were also asked, “Are you more interested in online dating now than before you started this study?” Once more, participants in the guilt prime reported enjoying the profiles more and were more interested in dating than those in the neutral prime condition.

The Guilt Connection
Neither Goldsmith nor her colleagues were surprised by the consistency of these results. “Guilt is linked with pleasure because often times when we experience guilt, we experience pleasure,” Goldsmith says. “I think for a lot of people these cognitive associations can form just based on what we called repeated coactivation. When pleasure’s activated, guilt is activated, and so in our brains, over time, those two become connected.”

But not all guilt is equal. Some experiences are more intense than others and may not enhance pleasure. Pretend a student has tickets to see a concert, Goldsmith suggests. If the student has to skip a homework assignment to go, he may feel a bit guilty, which could lead to a more enjoyable experience at the concert. But if the student’s grandmother passed away, the guilt from attending the concert as opposed to spending time with family would be overwhelming. The effect might not be the same as merely skipping a homework assignment.

Still, at mild intensities guilt can be a powerful motivating force. Take marketing to consumers, for example. “There’s so much push to take the guilt out of advertising and take the guilt out of products,” Goldsmith remarks. “If stripping all the guilt out of things makes them taste worse, are people going to buy them again? And there is something to be said for people having the best experiences possible. If you’re indulging in a chocolate dessert anyways, it might as well be one you enjoy,” she adds. “The implications for marketers, especially of these more indulgent or hedonic products like spa treatments or chocolates or online dating sites, might be just let people feel guilty doing it.”

Policy makers should take note, too, Goldsmith says. Guilt is commonly used to steer kids away from drugs and alcohol, but the results of these studies suggest that may have the opposite effect from what is intended. “It cuts both ways,” Goldsmith says. “Guilt can both be a vehicle to make safe indulgences more fun and more enjoyable for all of us. But then on the flip side we don’t want to make behaviors that we’re trying to curtail more sexy and more enjoyable.”

That sober message may have made you feel a bit guilty. Go eat a candy bar. Trust me, you’ll enjoy it.


Related reading on Kellogg Insight

Do Anti-drinking Ads Work? Guilt-inducing public service announcements can backfire

When Uncertainty Is a Sure Thing: Points and prizes can make for successful product promotion

Learning to Use Regret: Studies in the negative emotions and how to use them