Guilt trips are good for you

By Cecile Borkhataria

Feelings of guilt encourage people to repair a situation, while anger leads to retaliation and a breakdown in cooperation. Photo / 123RF
Feelings of guilt encourage people to repair a situation, while anger leads to retaliation and a breakdown in cooperation. Photo / 123RF

Guilt trips have a positive effect on our behavior and lead to better cooperation, research has found.

Feelings of guilt encourage people to repair a situation, while anger leads to retaliation and a breakdown in cooperation.

The research suggests that guilt is a key emotion to appeal to when encouraging cooperation, and it could help people better manage everything from dog mess on the street to energy bills and climate change, reports Daily Mail.

According to the author of the study, while traditional economic models have been used to try to understand this, they cannot fully explain cooperation, and recent research suggests that emotions associated with concern for others and for a group can help to sustain cooperation.

So with the help of volunteers, researchers based at the University of Nottingham looked into the role of emotions in cooperation.

Using a scenario based around shared energy use in the home they found that when energy use was made visible with smart meters and usage is unequal, as is common, the group reacted angrily and retaliated by using more energy.

But if the person using more energy felt guilty and moderated their usage, the situation would be repaired and cooperation restored.

"We all know the term 'guilt trip' and understand how it feels", said Dr Anya Skatova, who led the study while she was with the Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute at Nottingham.

"Our study shows that rather than being wholly negative, feelings of guilt can actually be positive and lead to positive behavior and improve cooperation."

To conduct the study, the researchers recruited 118 people to take part in a shared household scenario, as it provided a realistic context for the participants who were mainly students.

The "game" involved groups of four people, with three other who they didn't know.
Each group was allocated 20 imaginary Monetary Units, and had to make a decision on how much electricity they were going to use, where usage limits were from 5 to 20 Electricity Units.

But this decision was made by each individual in the group, anonymously.
They each had to choose how many

Monetary Units they would 'use' in the round, where two Monetary Units led to earning one Electricity Unit, giving utility benefits such as light and heat.

At the end of the round, each participants electricity usage was fed back to the entire group, and the cost of the 'bill' was shared equally regardless of individual use.

If everyone used the same amount of electricity, the outcome would be fair.

However, if a participant used more electricity than their partners, the outcome wouldn't be fair, as that participant paid the same as others but received more utility.

Following each round, participants rated to what extent they felt the key emotions of anger and guilt, amongst other emotions (included to avoid demand effects), on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely).

"The implications of this study are far reaching," said Dr Alexa Spence, a researcher at the University of Nottingham's School of Psychology and Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute, and a co-author of the study.

"If we understand that guilt leads to cooperation we can begin to recognise this and moderate our engagement activities accordingly to improve it.

"Cooperation is vital to everyday life, from the very small annoyances like not picking up dog mess on the street to the larger political landscape.

"Recognising that anger can harm cooperation and guilt encourages cooperation could actually lead to a more harmonious society."

The research also showed that while everybody feels angry if others are uncooperative, causing retaliation, some people don't feel guilt and remain uncooperative, and this imbalance causes a decline in cooperation.

- Daily Mail

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