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Guilt Makes the Pie Taste Sweeter

• November 20, 2012 • 5:00 PM

New research suggests feelings of remorse heighten our enjoyment when we succumb to temptation.

Many of us who generally maintain a healthy diet will fall off the wagon over the upcoming holidays. We’ll be offered a particularly enticing appetizer or dessert and, after some initial hesitation, indulge.

While that process inevitably produces internal conflict, it turns out we are rewarded for our discomfort. According to newly published research, the guilt we feel may make that decadent treat taste even more delicious than it otherwise would.

When succumbing to temptation, “people who are primed with guilt subsequently experience greater pleasure than people who are not,” reports a research team led by Kelly Goldsmith of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “People lack awareness of this automatic process.”

Writing in the Journal of Marketing Research, Goldsmith and her colleagues describe six experiments that provide evidence for their thesis.

One of them started off with the 40 participants, all female undergraduates, looking at magazine covers. Half of them surveyed six covers, four of which were health-related; the others saw six that had nothing to do with the topic.

Next, all participated in what was described as a “taste study” of a product that was being test-marketed. They were presented with a chocolate candy bar, and asked to evaluate it.

Those who had just been reminded of the importance of healthy living—and who presumably felt at least a twinge of guilt eating the chocolates—reported “liking the candy more significantly more” than those in the neutral group.

In another study, 108 undergraduates were assigned to one of three groups. One-third of them “were asked to think about three to five events that made them feel guilty, and to write several sentences about each one.” Another third ruminated and wrote about things that made them feel disgusted. The final third simply wrote about something they did that day.

A taste study followed, in which each participant ate a chocolate truffle and rated their enjoyment on a nine-point scale. Those who had been feeling guilt reported liking the candy significantly more than those who had been feeling disgust, or those in the neutral condition.

Yet another experiment suggests this dynamic is not exclusive to food. Among a group of 64 women, those who had been similarly primed with thoughts of guilt got more enjoyment out of reviewing the online profiles of potential mates.

Goldsmith and her colleagues believe the concepts of guilt and pleasure have become linked in our minds, thanks to a combination of “personal experiences and observations” and the many references in the media to “guilty pleasures.”

After exposure to countless commercials, book titles, movie titles, and song lyrics reinforcing the idea, the “link between guilt and pleasure may become automatic and non-conscious over time,” the researchers write.

These findings could have practical consequences for public health campaigns. An ad that produces guilt about smoking could increase the pleasure one feels taking a drag on a cigarette, which “might actually reduce their likelihood of cessation,” Goldsmith and her colleagues warn.

If they’re right, guilt isn’t a useless emotion after all; it’s actually a counterproductive one. So don’t beat yourself up over eating those candied yams: it may only increase your craving for seconds. It turns out that forbidden fruit really does taste the sweetest.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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