Diets are all about finding healthy or “guilt-free” options. But maybe guilt is exactly what makes food — and the things we enjoy the most — taste so good.
While feeling guilty is commonly associated with causing negative emotions, in a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, lead researcher Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and her team examined the association between guilt and pleasure to determine if food, especially sweets, tastes better on a diet. The results suggest that the more guilt you feel, the more pleasure you may experience from consuming a delicious (and forbidden) treat. And triggering feelings of guilt before eating can make the food taste even better.
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In a series of six studies, the researchers attempted to manipulate participants’ taste perception by manipulating the type of guilt people associate with eating certain foods. In Study 1, 103 participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. In the group primed to feel more guilt, participants were asked to unscramble sentences with words related to guilt to cognitively activate the feeling. The other group unscrambled sentences without guilt-related words. All were then given cups of chocolate candies and were asked to rate them at that moment and again three days later. Participants primed with guilt reported enjoying the candy much more than those in the neutral group.
In the next phase, the scientists studied whether health information could serve as a trigger for guilt, and asked a small group of 20 participants to look at six health-related magazine covers and write about their popularity; another 20 examined magazine covers unrelated to health and wrote about their photography. All answered a survey before reading the passages that asked participants to imagine being part of a taste test for a new candy bar that included one question assessing how guilty they would feel eating the candy bar. People in the health group reported feeling more guilty about consuming the candy than the control group. But during a taste test, in which both groups were allowed to eat a chocolate candy bar, the health-primed group reported liking the chocolate significantly more than the group that was not thinking about health.
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Guilt’s ability to make food tastier persisted when the researchers explicitly activated guilty feelings in another experiment in which 108 undergraduate students were asked to either recall experiences in which they felt guilty or disgusted and write about them, or write about more neutral topics such as what they did that day and how they spent their evenings. Then they all ate a chocolate truffle. The students in the guilt group reported liking the candy much more than the students in the disgust and neutral groups, supporting the idea that “experiencing the emotion of guilt can increase pleasure,” the study’s authors write.
The remaining phases of the study focused on tasks unrelated to food and health to see if the link between guilt and pleasure holds for more than just eating. And the results suggest it does. A group of students participating online, for example, were assigned to watch either a “hedonic video” — i.e. a fun viral video, generally something college students watch to procrastinate, not to learn — or a “utilitarian video,” an instructional video, which is not generally associated with pleasure. Students in the guilt priming group enjoyed the fun video more than those in the neutral prime group, but guilt did not have any effect on how much students enjoyed the instructional video, meaning that guilt may only increase pleasure in contexts that are enjoyable.
Goldsmith warns that the relationship between guilt and pleasure also works for unhealthy habits too: for example, smoking, drinking frequently, or drinking and driving. Her research could mean that people with these habits may get an even bigger kick out of these transgressions the more they are “forbidden” or discouraged, and therefore be less inclined to stop.
With respect to food, the results suggest that marketers’ claims of “guilt-free” foods may actually deter, rather than enhance consumers‘ enjoyment. Instead of playing down people’s feelings of guilt when promoting a product, they should play up these feelings to ensure people enjoy the food more. And if you are otherwise healthy and fit, indulging in a small guilty pleasure every now and then may not be detrimental to your health.
“If you advertise your product as being ‘guilt-free’ what it could implicitly do is lower taste perception by lowering the expectation of pleasure,” she says. “If you take the guilt out of it, people might not expect it to be as good, and therefore it might not taste as good. Let people benefit from the intrigue and pleasure and enjoy their experience more.”