Weighed down by guilt: Research shows it's more than a metaphor

Posted on October 9, 2013

Day and Bobocel find evidence that the emotional experience of guilt can be grounded in subjective bodily sensation

Lots of people say they do. They're "carrying guilt" or "weighed down by guilt." Are these just expressions, or is there something more to these metaphors?

Princeton researcher Martin Day and Ramona Bobocel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo, recently published the results of a series of studies that begin to offer answers to that question.

Day, a postdoctoral research associate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Bobocel discuss their findings and how they can contribute to the broader understanding of how humans perceive guilt:

"Embodied cognition is an emerging field in psychology that examines how our thoughts and emotions interact with our bodies to guide behavior. Guilt is important because it plays a role in regulating our moral behavior. It can help us correct our mistakes and prevent future wrongdoing. Of course, people know that guilt feels unpleasant and is sometimes associated with feelings of tension and regret. However, we know less about the broad nature of guilt — such as how it interacts with the body and our beliefs about the body.

"People often say guilt is like a 'weight on one's conscience,' and we examined whether guilt is actually embodied as a sensation of weight. In a series of studies we asked students and members of the public to recall a time that they did something unethical. People recalled a variety of wrongdoings, such as lying, stealing or cheating. Afterward, in a separate task, we asked them to rate their subjective feeling of their own body weight as compared to their average. That is, did they feel less weight than usual, about the same weight, or more weight? We compared these responses to participants in control conditions who recalled an ethical memory, a memory of someone else's unethical actions or who were not asked to recall a memory.

We found that recalling personal unethical acts led participants to report increased subjective body weight as compared to recalling ethical acts, unethical acts of others or no recall. We also found that this increased sense of weight was related to participants' heightened feelings of guilt, and not other negative emotions, such as sadness or disgust. Although people sometimes associate importance with 'heaviness,' we found no evidence that importance could explain this finding. For example, ethical deeds were rated just as important as unethical actions, but only unethical, guilt-inducing memories led to increased reports of weight.


Source material from Princeton University


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