A new study suggests the emotions of guilt and shame make a difference in the way a person makes decisions.
Researchers found that guilt is more associated with concrete actions while shame leads to a global or holistic view.
For example, perhaps you splurged last night and went off your diet. The next morning as you prepare to go grocery shopping, you think of the previous night. In this framework you may feel guilty or ashamed about breaking your diet.
As reported in the Journal of Consumer Research, feeling guilty might find you comparing calories in different cartons of ice cream, while feeling ashamed might keep you from buying any ice cream in the first place.
“We examined the emotions of guilt and shame and found that when consumers feel guilty, they tend to focus on concrete details at the expense of the bigger picture. On the other hand, when consumers feel ashamed, they are more likely to think abstractly and form a more holistic view,” write marketing researchers DaHee Han, Ph.D., (McGill University); Adam Duhachek, Ph.D., (Indiana University); and Nidhi Agrawal, Ph.D., (University of Washington).
For the study, researchers asked consumers to write about a time when they felt either guilty or ashamed. After their responses were collected, the consumers were then asked to read an essay and choose whether they wanted to answer questions or demonstrate a task to test how well they understood the topic.
Consumers who wrote about feeling guilty preferred to answer questions — thus a focus on the details.
Conversely, consumers who wrote about feeling ashamed preferred to demonstrate a task, that is, to focus on the bigger picture.
Researchers believe the insights may aid companies in industries such as fitness or personal care that could suggest guilt or shame in their advertisements.
Negative connotations associated with guilt might be relieved by mentioning a daily yoga class (detail). Further, feelings of shame could be reduced by promising improvements in overall health (big picture).
“Consumers who often experience guilt may want to stop and contemplate the larger implications of making a decision they may later regret.
“Similarly, consumers who are often burdened by shame may want to pay closer attention to the details and terms of offers and contracts before making a decision,” the authors conclude.