Researchers have shown, through a series of experiments, that the heaviness of guilt is a very real thing. They found evidence that the emotions attached to guilt can be "grounded in subjective bodily sensation."
Martin Day from Princeton University, NJ, and Ramona Bobocel from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, published the results of their four studies in the journal PLOS ONE.
"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," they say.
Their research touches on an emerging field in psychology called "embodied cognition," which they say looks at how thoughts and emotions can interact with the body to guide behavior.
They focused on guilt because they say it helps regulate our moral behavior by helping us "correct our mistakes and prevent future wrongdoing."
Additionally, the researchers say there is no prior research that has studied the embodiment of guilt until now.
Guilty participants felt heavier
Feeling weighed down by guilt? Research shows subjective experiences of weight feel heavier when a person recalls situations that induce feelings of guilt.
In four studies, Day and Bobocel examined three things:
- Whether unethical acts increased subjective experiences of weight
- If feelings of guilt explain this effect, and
- Whether the weight of guilt brings any consequences.
They asked participants to recall something unethical they had done in the past, including lying, stealing or cheating. Later, in a separate task, they asked the participants to rate their own subjective feelings of their body weight.
Responses from these participants were compared with the responses of individuals in a control group, who either recalled an ethical memory, a memory of someone else's unethical act or who were not asked to recall a memory at all.
Results show that participants who recalled unethical acts reported heavier subjective body weight, compared with those in the control group.
Day and Bobocel say this sense of heaviness was related to the participants' increased feelings of guilt, not to other negative emotions like sadness or disgust.
'Literally weightless,' but guilt has weight
In another study, the researchers tested whether remembering unethical memories would affect the participants' perceived effort to complete "helping behaviors," such as carrying groceries upstairs for someone (physical effort) or giving someone spare change (nonphysical).
They found that there were not any differences in perceived effort for the nonphysical tasks, but in the group that recalled unethical memories, the participants perceived that the physical tasks required greater effort, compared with the control group who did not think of unethical memories.
Day and Bobocel say:
"Overall, it was exciting to find these patterns of results, which are consistent with an embodied theory of emotion. However, this is still relatively new research, and we are still exploring how to more fully characterize the experience of guilt."
At the end of their paper, they note that future research potentially could explore whether the stimulation of guilt "may facilitate affective experience and understanding of emotion-related content."
"Although guilt is literally weightless," they conclude, "we demonstrate that the embodiment of guilt can have consequences as if it does indeed have weight."