Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Guilty pleasure

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Guilty pleasures:
What is guilty pleasure and what are its consequences?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Is there a certain type of food, perhaps a TV series or activity that you enjoy but also feel guilty about?

Is it because of what others may think if they knew? Or perhaps due to your own internal conflict?

This chapter looks at guilty pleasures and what the consequences are for having them. Case studies will help answer questions about how guilt can increase pleasure as well as how to overcome a guilty pleasure.

Focus questions:

  • What is guilty pleasure?
  • Can guilt increase pleasure?
  • What are the consequences?
  • How can you overcome a guilty pleasure?

What is guilty pleasure?[edit | edit source]

Guilt is a negative, self-conscious emotion that is experienced after the realisation of the negative outcomes that are associated with certain behaviours (Elder & Mohr, 2020). Guilt is distinguished from other negative emotions by being linked to specific actions that are harmful to either the self or to others, which the acting person claims responsibility for.

Pleasure, on the other hand, is a broad psychological concept relating to positive experiences during happy or enjoyable mental states (Berridge & Kringelbach, 2010). While pleasure activated networks are distributed across the brain and widespread, pleasant sensation detection hotspots are found only in the subcortical structure. Motivational processes behind pleasure can be the reward component of ‘wanting’ or ‘incentives’ that make any stimuli attractive.    

The expression ‘guilty pleasure’ refers to an instance of feeling bad after enjoying an activity. Therefore, a guilty pleasure invokes the feeling that one should not be enjoying the activity because social expectations and personal norms dictate what is appropriate and what is not (Cova & Goffin, 2019).

Figure 1. Emotion categories (Reeve, 2018)

Neuroscience of guilt and pleasure in the brain[edit | edit source]

The self-conscious emotion of guilt activates within the temporal and frontal areas, within the fusiform gyrus and middle temporal gyrus, as well as the amygdala and insula, as shown in Figures 2 and 3[factual?]. A further brain imaging study researching guilt activations by Born et al. (2014), found women activated the temporal regions, while men also activated the frontal and occipital regions, showing evidence to support gender variation.

The nucleus accumbens, located near the centre of the brain as shown in Figure 4, connects to many other brain structures that play a role in pleasure seeking (Canadian Association for Neuroscience, 2014). Dr Jonathan Britt studied how reward signals travel through the brain and how the nucleus accumbens integrates the neurotransmitter dopamine with other environmental stimuli using another neurochemical glutamate. The researcher was able to distinguish the roles of different neural circuits through the use of light-responsive proteins that activated neural circuits in certain locations. The hippocampus, amygdala, thalamus and prefrontal cortex structures are all able to send glutamate-dependent signals to the nucleus accumbens. Being able to comprehend how different brain regions interconnect helps with understanding motivation and pleasure seeking.

Psychodynamic theories on guilty pleasure[edit | edit source]

Sigmund Freud developed the term psychodynamics which refers to the interaction of concepts within the mind, notably inner conflicts between parts of the self that hold opposing views or emotions (Corsini & Wedding, 2010). As conflict is considered unconscious, the theory of inner conflict focuses on the repressed behaviour or emotion which surface into the consciousness.

Figure 5. Id, ego and superego

Freud formulated the theory into structural organisations of the mind; with mental functions grouped according to what role they played in conflict. Of the three subdivisions shown in Figure 5, the first is called the ego, which mediates an individual’s external and internal worlds. The ego is also meant to protect the mind from any internal threats such as a breakthrough of unacceptable impulses into the consciousness. The second is the id, which represents organised instinctual pressures such as sexual and aggressive instincts. Lastly the superego splits off from the ego, and is the residue from early childhood identifications and aspirations.

An individual who indulgences in a guilty pleasure may experience a short-term gain, however societal norms taught from an early age instil delayed gratification. So, when an individual’s ego gives in to the id’s demands such as through acts that are considered taboo, the rules enforced by the superego are broken and feelings of guilt may manifest[factual?].    

Meta-emotion[edit | edit source]

Meta-emotions, also referred to as secondary emotions, are emotions that occur as a reaction to the initial primary emotion (Bailen, Wu & Thompson, 2019). Meta-emotion experiences are composed of an initial negative or positive emotion followed by a secondary emotion, which is felt in response to the initial emotion (Coles, Jordan & Larsen, 2017). These mixed emotions that co-occur in daily life have been categorised into four categories{ic|repeated word}}:

  • negative – negative (NN)
  • positive – positive (PP)
  • negative – positive (NP)
  • positive – negative (PN).

Individuals often feel mixed emotions during a complex event that can have both agreeable as well as disagreeable properties, such as an event, which helps the pursuit of one goal but at the expense of another goal. So when an individual feels guilty as the secondary emotion in response to feeling pleasure, the experience is considered to be a negative-positive (NP) meta-emotion.         

Schadenfreude[edit | edit source]

The German word schadenfreude describes the sense of cruel pleasure individuals perceive when seeing others suffer, as opposed to feeling sympathetic (Branscombe, Doosje, Leach & Spears, 2003). Schaden, translates to harm and freude, means pleasure, so together they translate to harm-pleasure. Unlike the feelings of ‘pride’ or even ‘gloating’ after the defeat of another individual or group through active direct competition, schadenfreude is felt when a third party or external circumstances are the cause of the individual or group’s misfortune.

Schadenfreude has also been closely linked to envy, as it is usually a response to misfortune happening to an individual who is both advantaged and self-relevant rather than to an individual who is neither (Kato et al, 2009). Although societal norms may dictate that the good fortune of others should be celebrated, individuals may privately resent the person with the advantages due to a sense of injustice stemming from a psychological balance that entails similar people should have similar good fortunes (Garonzik et al, 1996).      

Examples of guilty pleasures[edit | edit source]

Any activity that initially causes pleasure, followed almost immediately by the feeling of guilt due to either personal norms or social expectations being violated can be considered a guilty pleasure (Cova & Goffin, 2019).

Figure 6. Sweets, such as donuts are a common guilty pleasure.

Food[edit | edit source]

Eating a whole tub of icecream or indulging in chocolate are enjoyable activities that are in general not held in high regard. This should not be confused with specifically ‘unhealthy’ foods, as consuming cake on a birthday or any other special occasion is considered quite socially acceptable in Western cultural norms. However, consuming too much or indulging in an unhealthy snack can thwart health goals and have overall negative effects on health[factual?]. The conflict that comes after the enjoyment of food and in between achievement of health goals can result in the negative emotions of guilt (Elder & Mohr, 2020). A study by Dettmer and Macht (2006) found chocolate may have initially elicited positive emotions due to sensory pleasure, but participants later felt guilty, in part due to negative thoughts. Indulging is within the control of consumers, who may accredit their lack of willpower and self-control when it comes to their chosen guilty pleasure.

Dark chocolate: guilty pleasure or not?

  • Healthy dark chocolate may provide a pleasurable role in cardiovascular disease risk reduction (Hensen et al., 2013)
  • It must be added to a well-balanced calorie appropriate diet
  • Commercially available chocolate may contain significant saturated fat and sugar content, so cocoa products with little to no added sugar and fat should be prioritised

Figure 7. Advertisement on skyscraper billboards

Consumerism[edit | edit source]

As guilt is a moral, self-conscious emotion, guilt focuses on the ‘bad’ behaviour, as opposed to a bad self in general, which is usually shame. Guilt within advertisement is usually examined through the effectiveness of persuasion that is elicited from guilty emotions after viewing advertisement (Lancellotti & Thomas, 2018). Guilt is also often associated with the overindulgence in positive commodities, such as dessert, which through the enjoyment of consumption is met with societal disapproval. So, because guilt can be associated with too much of something good, used as a marketing tool, consumers feel guilty about things that give them pleasure. So, when the consumer purchases products that result in guilty feelings, those products, services or experiences are deemed a guilty pleasure. 

Marketing products as a guilty pleasure suggest the product is so good that it will be negatively viewed by society, but also through this admission grants the consumer permission to indulge in the product and ignore the norms[say what?][for example?].

By using guilt to indicate how good a product is, the premise is having too much of a good thing and allowing the self to engage in the consumption will lead to negative judgement of oneself, or society, which in turn leads to guilt.

More information on examples can be found through the linked subpage.

TV shows[edit | edit source]

Individuals who consume ‘trashy’ or ‘bad’ television may believe the shows are inferior but still find themselves on the couch in from of their television or various portable screens, watching those same ‘trashy’ shows and unable to look away (McCoy & Scarborough, 2014). Researchers McCoy and Scarborough (2014) studied this contradiction and found that viewers who admitted watching was a guilty pleasure used several different strategies[for example?] to explain why there were unable to stop.

More information on examples can be found through the linked subpage.

Sex[edit | edit source]

Through the examination of dating apps, sexually explicit content can be viewed as a guilty pleasure, with users enjoying the content and engaging in unthinkable behaviour before feeling of regret and guilt arise (Arias et al, 2020).

More information on examples can be found through the linked subpage.

Can guilt increase pleasure?[edit | edit source]

Case studies and research have found a link between guilt and pleasure has been established.

Subconscious link between guilt and pleasure[edit | edit source]

Guilty feelings can drive people towards their vice rather than away, and not help live a healthier lifestyle (Robson, 2014). Researchers in Northwestern University, Illinois conducted an experiment to show this subconscious link (Cho, Dhar & Goldsmith, 2012). Through the use of word games, participants were asked to unscramble sentences, some of which contained some triggering words ‘sin’ or ‘guilt’ mixed with neutral terms. During the second phase, participants were shown word fragments such as ‘EN_ _ _’ or ‘PL_ _ _ _ _ _’ and asked to fill in the missing letters to complete the word. The participants that had unscrambled sentences with the triggering words were more likely to complete and associate the missing letter words with desire, such as ‘enjoy’ or ‘pleasure’. This is opposed to the other participants with neutral terms that completed the words with ‘enter’ or ‘pleading’. This showed a link between the guilty subconscious and pleasure.

The same researchers also found the feelings could be translated to reality with sensual experiences. Participants briefed with guilt enjoyed the sweets offered in the lab more than the other participants. Even when reminded subtly of health consequences, such as looking at healthy magazines, the guilt and pleasure both increased.

Once an activity that initially hasn’t been associated with guilt, is taken and made to feel naughty, the pleasure of the activity becomes enhanced.

Case Study: 'No smoking' signs increases smokers cravings: Researchers Ackerman et al. (2013) primed smokers with photographs that either contained ‘no smoking signs’ or photographs without signs (control) to test whether exposure would increase motivation to smoke. Results from the primed smoker’s group indicated the exposure boosted implicit motivation to smoke. Public health campaigns, such as the ‘no smoking’ signs may ironically increase the harmful behaviour that is attempting to refrain smokers from.

Thoughts before the act[edit | edit source]

Expectations shape a consumer’s experience as well as satisfaction with a product, which is critical to understanding the importance of imaged interactions. So, in the same way that actually consuming indulgent food can cause feelings of guilt, so can just imagining the consumption.

Elder & Mohr (2020) showed this link between guilty emotions in individuals who had imagined consuming an indulgent food. Their data indicated that participants' guilt was greater when imaging the outcome of consumption when compared to the same scenario but focusing on imagining the process of consumption. Notably this effect was more prominent in higher restrained eaters, which supports the premise that those participants who experience guilt when indulging would also experience guilt when imagining consumption. In particular, individuals who were high in their dietary restraint were susceptible to feeling guilty due to their intensified feelings of arousal when indulgence food was present and even felt damped enjoyment during the ensuing consumption.

Cho, Dhar & Goldsmith (2012) found after the activation of guilt due to consumption, participant’s[grammar?] pleasure also increased. This occurred due to the cognitive association between guilt and pleasure, as activating the conditions of one can also activate the conditions of the other.    

What are the consequences?[edit | edit source]

The consequences of guilty pleasure vary according to how much the activity defies an internal conflict or/and a societal norm. Accordingly, the level of investment from casual to addiction can influence both short and long term consequences.

'What-the-hell' effect[edit | edit source]

Figure 8. 'What-the-hell' effect first observed in dieters, however is not limited to food

Polivy and Herman first coined the term ‘what-the-hell’ as the cycle effect of indulgence, followed by regret and subsequent further indulgence (McGonigal, 2012). The effect was first observed by the researchers in dieters, who after an initial lapse in their diets felt guilty and that the whole diet was blown. However, instead of minimising the ‘damage’ by not having anymore of the offending item, would think ‘what-the-hell’ and continue counter regulatory eating. The ‘what-the-hell’ effect can also be triggered when dieters notice how much less others are eating in comparison to themselves, which may leads to binge eating.

In a further study, Polivy and Herman rigged a scale so dieters thought they had gained an additional 5 pounds. With feelings of guilt, depression and disappointment, the participating dieters turned to food to fix these feelings, rather than resolving to lose the weight and become healthier.

The ‘what-the-hell’ effect is not limited to food and can apply to any sort of willpower challenge. This phenomenon has been observed in shoppers trying to reduce spending habits and smokers trying to quit. The pattern for each willpower challenge is the same. Giving in creates disappointed and guilty feelings, which motivates the need for consolation. The fastest, easiest way to feel better is usually doing the same thing that caused the guilty feelings. Crucially, the first ‘what-the-hell’ is not the guarantee to a relapse, but rather the feelings of guilt that result in the bigger relapse. However the cycle won’t stop because it will continue to generate more feelings of guilt without intervention.

The [what?] cycle is indulgence, followed by regret and further indulgence, on repeat.

Addiction[edit | edit source]

Individuals who self-regulate are able to resist short-term temptations and override tendencies in favour of improved long-term future outcomes. Addictions are often behaviours that evoke short-term benefits, such as pleasure, but impact the individual with long-term costs to numerous life aspects (Alquist & Baumeister, 2012). Evidence shows genetic and biological factors may predispose certain individuals to addiction[factual?]. The medical field treats addiction as a disease that requires treatment more so than willpower. Support groups can form to release the stress and powerlessness that individuals feel when trying to overcome an addiction, although through this method the social support that is gained acts as an aid for self-restraint and therefore willpower[factual?].               

Deterministic view[edit | edit source]

Addiction as explained through the deterministic model provides an excuse for misbehaviour, and rejects the idea of free will. This will sustain the problem and individuals will continue to act in such a way that gives them pleasure, with long-term negative consequences. To start, the antisocial effects include reduced altruism towards strangers and heightened aggression towards innocent individuals (Baumeister & Vohs, 2009). Scepticism in free will also causes individuals to think less for themselves, depicted by conforming to others judgements and reduced willingness to acknowledge any lessons learned from personal guilty behaviour. People usually reflecting on any past behaviour which makes them feel guilty will often prefer a deterministic view as it may reduce guilt by allowing the individual to believe their deeds were inevitable, as opposed to believing in free will[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Therefore it is not surprising that addicts can be attracted to such deterministic views, because it downplays their free will to not helping but act the way they did. The popularity of the deterministic view can be owed to addicts themselves due to the excuse making function.

More information on examples of guilty pleasures turned into addictions can be found through the linked subpage.

How can you overcome a guilty pleasure?[edit | edit source]

Depending on the extent of the infatuation with a guilty pleasure, perhaps the feelings of guilt need to dissipate as whatever action caused the individual to view it as a mistake cannot be corrected and should rather be embraced. However if the guilt is stemming from a lack of willpower and the action causes some form of harm, then the guilty pleasure is probably not to blame, rather the need for balance and life re-evaluation.

How to break the guilt cycle[edit | edit source]

Figure 9. Experimenters used donuts to survey guilt

Researchers from Louisiana State University and Duke University experimented with a hypothesis on how to break the ‘what-the-hell’ cycle (Robson, 2014). Their theory hypothesised if guilt sabotages self-control, the opposite of guilt should therefore support self-control. Inviting weight-watching women as participants in their study, the participants were told they would be involved in two different studies, the first interested in the effect of food on mood, and the second a candy taste test.

During the first phase, the women were asked to eat a donut followed by an entire glass of water to make them feel full and therefore guiltier. They were then asked to fill out a mood survey. Before the start of the second testing phase, half of the women received a positive message designed to help alleviate their feelings of guilt, by mentioning participants often feel guilty and not to be too hard on themselves.

In the second phase, the women were all given a large bowl of different candies and asked to taste each flavour as many times as necessary to rate them. In theory, the women who still felt guilty about eating the donut would think ‘what-the-hell’ and eat more of the candy than the women who were given special encouragement. The self-forgiveness messages were in fact successful, with the women who still felt guilty eating an average 43 grams more candy.

Although common sense might dictate that getting ‘permission’ to eat more leads to counter regulatory eating, it alleviated the guilt and subsequently made the women eat less during the taste test. The guilt does not mean the mistake has to be rectified, rather the need for negative emotions needs to dissipate.

Willpower[edit | edit source]

Ebbesen, Mischel & Raskoff (1972) developed the delay-of-gratification theory, commonly known as the ‘marshmallow test’ to identify the process that underlines 'willpower’ otherwise considered as self-control when faced with temptation. The testing situation included measuring for how long children resisted eating a small marshmallow offered immediately, in order to gain the larger reward of two marshmallows later. Resisting temptation of a pleasure, in favour of long-term goals is part of both cognitive and social development (Ayduk et al, 2010).

One strategy that can aid an individual’s delay of gratification, to resist the temptation in order to stick to long-term goals, is altering cognitive representations (Ayduk et al, 2010). By reframing the ‘hot’ situation away from the tempting features into ‘cool’ representations the individual can self-regulate. Essentially when one is viewing the pleasure, the individual has to replace the image with something else less tempting. However the delay of gratification depends on the individual’s ability to mentally control how the situation is represented. As such the ability to resist a pleasure in favour of a long-term goal is controlled cognitively. The key component of cognitive control is being able to suppress any competing behavioural reactions or attentional reactions to the tempting stimuli[for example?].

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Guilty pleasures are the indulging in an activity that gives temporary positive emotions, such as pleasure, followed immediately by the negative emotion of guilt (Cova & Goffin, 2019). The consequence of having a guilty pleasure varies according to how strongly the activity defies either a personal norm or societal expectation. A momentary lapse leading to guilt that an individual attempts to resolved by engaging in the same activity that brought on the initial negative feeling refers to a cycle of ‘what-the-hell’ effect (McGonigal, 2012). To break the cycle, the individual should forgive themselves for the feelings of guilt and not confuse these feelings as a need to fix the mistake (Robson, 2014). Indulging in a guilty pleasure should therefore be forgiven, rather than focusing on the guilt and trying to elevate the feelings with more temptation. o However the level of investment in a guilty pleasure also influences whether the activity becomes an addiction with long-term consequences. Addicts are not able to resist temptations that give short-lived pleasure, usually coupled with long term consequences to numerous life aspects (Alquist & Baumeister, 2012). The guilt may stem from a lack of willpower and these individuals could benefit from re-evaluating their life choices.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ackerman, J., Bargh, J., Dill, B., Earp, B., & Harris, J. (2013). No sign of quitting: Incidental exposure to no-smoking signs ironically boosts cigarette-approach tendencies in smokers. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(10), 2158-2162.

Alquist, J., & Baumeister, R. (2012). Self-control and addiction. In H. Shaffer, D. LaPlante & S. Nelson (Eds), APA addiction syndrome handbook (pp. 165-174), American Psychological Association.

Arias, V., Flora J., Niehuis, S., Oldham C., Punyanunt-Carter, N., Reifman, A., & Weiser, D. (2020). Guilty Pleasure? Communicating Sexually Explicit Content on Dating Apps and Disillusionment with App Usage. Human Communication Research, 46(1), 55-85. 10.1093/hcr/hqz013

Ayduk, O., Berman, M., Casey, B, Gotlib, I., Jonides, J., Kross, E., Mischel, W, Shoda, Y., Teslovich, T., Wilson, N., & Zayas V. (2010). ‘Willpower’ over the life span: decomposing self-regulation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 6(2), 252-256.

Bailen, N., Wu, H., & Thompson, R. (2019). Meta-emotions in daily life: Associations with emotional awareness and depression. Emotion, 19(5), 776-787.

Baumeister, R., & Vohs, K. (2009). Addiction and free will. Addict Res Theory, 17(3), 231-235. 10.1080/16066350802567103

Berridge, C & Kringelbach, L. (2010). The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure. PubMed Central, 77(2), 659-678.

Born, C., Engel, R., Hennig-Fast K., Meindl, T., Meister F., Michl, P., & Resier, M. (2014). Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(2), 150-157.

Branscombe, N., Doosje, B., Leach, C., & Spears, R. (2003). Malicious pleasure: Schadenfreude at the suffering of another group. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(5), 932–943.

Canadian Association for Neuroscience. (2014, May 27). Investigating the pleasure centers of the brain: How reward signals are transmitted. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 20, 2020 from

Cho, E., Dhar., & Goldsmith, K. (2012). When guilt begets pleasure: the positive affect of a negative emotion. Journal of Marketing Research, 49(6), 872-881.

Coles, N., Jordan, L., & Larsen, J. (2017). Varieties of mixed emotional experience. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 15, 72-76.

Corsini, R., & Wedding, D. (2010).Current Psychotherapies. (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Cova, F., & Goffin K. (2019). An empirical investigation of guilty pleasures. Philosophical Psychology, 32(7), 1129-1155.

Dettmer, D., & Macht, M. (2006). Everyday mood and emotions after eating a chocolate bar or an apple. Elsevier, 46, 332-336. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2006.01.014

Ebbesen, E., Mischel, W., & Raskoff, Z. (1972). Cognitive attentional mechanisms in delay gratification. Journal of personality and social psychology, 21(2), 204-218.

Elder, R., & Mohr, G. (2020). Guilty displeasures: How imagined guilt dampens consumer enjoyment. Appetite, 150, 104641.

Garonzik, R., Leach C., Smith R., Turner, T., Urch-Druskat, V., & Weston, C. (1996). Envy and schadenfreude. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(2), 158-168.

Hensen, Z., Latham, L., & Minor, D. (2013). Chocolate—Guilty Pleasure or Healthy Supplement?. The Journal of Clinical Hypertension, 16(2), 101-106.

Kato, M., Matsuura, M., Mobbs, D., Okubo, Y., Suhara, T., & Takahashi, H. (2009). When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: neural correlates of envy and schadenfreude. Science, 323(5916), 937-939. 10.1126/science.1165604

Lancellotti, M., & Thomas, S. (2018). Men hate it, women love it: Guilty pleasure advertising messages. Journal of Business Research, 85, 271-280.

McCoy, C., & Scarborough R. (2014). Watching “bad” television: Ironic consumption, camp, and guilty pleasures. Poetics, 47, 41-59.

McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct. Avery Publishing.

Reeve, J. (2018). Individual Emotions. Understanding Motivation and Emotion (pp. 339-361). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Robson, D. (2014). Psychology: Why does guilt increase pleasure? BBC.

External links[edit | edit source]