Research

The Pleasure of Guilt

Ravi Dhar — January 2013

Guilt may be a key mechanism for enhancing pleasure, according to new research co-authored by Professor Ravi Dhar.

Feeling guilty about indulging in a spa treatment, dessert, or a weekend in Las Vegas enhances the enjoyment we feel from the experience, according to a new study from researchers at the Yale School of Management, Kellogg School of Management, and Smeal College of Business.

"Intuitively, we might believe that a negative emotion like guilt would adversely affect the pleasure we feel from an indulgent, or hedonic, experience. Quite the contrary, we found that guilt may be a key mechanism for enhancing pleasure," says Ravi Dhar, the George Rogers Clark Professor of Management and Marketing and Director of the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management.

Dhar and his colleagues examined the pleasure people experience in the presence and absence of guilt. In a series of experiments that included eating candy, viewing online dating profiles, and watching videos, participants who were primed to think of or to feel guilt reported experiencing greater enjoyment than participants who were not primed. 

"In every instance we found that those who felt guilty experienced the greatest enjoyment," says Dhar.

Participants did not experience greater enjoyment when primed for other negative emotions such as anger and disgust, or when the consumption was utilitarian rather than hedonic.

The authors attribute their findings to a cognitive connection between guilt and pleasure, which is highlighted by the phrase "guilty pleasure" that is applied to everything from lowbrow television shows to food. Activating guilt can automatically activate thoughts related to pleasure and thus increase pleasure from consumption.

Dhar says that the findings provide obvious implications for marketers who, for example, might benefit from highlighting the guilty aspects of pleasurable products and services. They also hold less obvious implications for policymakers who want to curtail consumption of hedonic goods like cigarettes and 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," says Dhar. "Social marketing organizations should be aware of the bifurcated effect of campaigns constructed around guilt."

"When Guilt Begets Pleasure: The Positive Effect of a Negative Emotion" is published in the Journal of Marketing Research. Ravi Dhar is the George Rogers Clark Professor of Management and Marketing and director of the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management; Kelly Goldsmith is assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University; Eunice Kim Cho is assistant professor of marketing at Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University.