Goes Together Like Guilt and Pleasure
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Marketing May 2, 2012

Goes Togeth­er Like Guilt and Pleasure

Guilty plea­sures may be the best kind

Based on the research of

Kelly Goldsmith

Eunice Kim Cho

Ravi Dhar

Listening: Interview with Kelly Goldsmith on Guilty Pleasures

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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.

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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.

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.

Guilt is linked with plea­sure because often times when we expe­ri­ence guilt, we expe­ri­ence plea­sure.” — Kel­ly Goldsmith 

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

Featured Faculty

Kelly Goldsmith

Member of the Department of Marketing faculty until 2017

About the Writer

Tim De Chant was science writer and editor of Kellogg Insight between 2009 and 2012.

About the Research

Goldsmith, Kelly, Eunice Kim Cho, and Ravi Dhar. 2012. “When Guilt Begets Pleasure: The Positive Effect of a Negative Emotion.” Journal of Marketing Research, 49(6): 872-881 [DOI: 10.1509/jmr.09.0421]

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