“When you feel guilty but haven’t harmed anyone, you’re just in the realm of perfectionism or criticism”
In 2012, Goldsmith et al. observed how guilt, which is looked upon as a negative emotion, can have a positive effect by enhancing the enjoyment of a particular “guilty pleasure” (Goldsmith et al., 2012). These pleasures were viewed as hedonistic – as something the world would judge us poorly for doing – by the consumer. We decide we should feel shame for doing, eating or drinking it.
Some participants in the study were primed to feel guilt, others to feel angry or disgusted, while another group were not primed, although none of the groups were aware of this. Then they were allocated various activities, including binge-watching films, browsing dating websites and eating chocolate. The study found that, relative to no priming or negative priming, the negative emotions of anger and disgust decreased the pleasure of the activity, while guilt enhanced it.
[Guilty] pleasures were viewed as hedonistic – as something the world would judge us poorly for doing – by the consumer. We decide we should feel shame for doing, eating or drinking it
So, if guilt enhances pleasure, the marketing strategists are having a field day! Tobacco companies must have read this study and complied joyfully with the pictures on the packets that make smokers feel guilty for smoking. It makes the smoke all the nicer, it seems. In fact, another article shows that incidental exposure to “no smoking” signs ironically boosts cigarette-approach tendencies in smokers (Earp et al., 2013). Thus, anti-smoking and other public health campaigns may ironically increase the very behaviours they seek to reduce.
However, in another study, researchers demonstrated that participants who naturally associated eating chocolate cake with guilt had less belief in their self-control than the people who associated eating cake with positive feelings, such as celebrating (Kujier and Boyce, 2014). So, although the cake brings us more pleasure, it brings us poorer mental well-being because of our guilt, which makes us judge ourselves as weak and lacking in self-control. The authors observed: “Participants with a weight-loss goal who associated chocolate cake with guilt were less successful at losing weight over a three-month period compared to those associating chocolate cake with celebration.”
Anti-smoking and other public health campaigns may ironically increase the very behaviours they seek to reduce
Why am I telling you about this research?
It’s not to ruin your cake eating, honestly. Rather, it’s to enhance it.
Eating cake can bring us huge amounts of pleasure: it’s delicious, it’s sometimes celebratory and it’s social when at communal gatherings like teatime. Guilt, by definition, should be a term reserved for when one’s actions harm another. So, any guilt we associate with this sweet snacking is misplaced guilt. Dr Kristen Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said: “When you feel guilty but haven’t harmed anyone, you’re just in the realm of perfectionism or criticism.”
Women are more likely than men to feel this misplaced guilt. Society has historically demonised women’s pleasure, even with food. A 1999 study showed that 50 percent of Japanese women associated high-fat foods and cake with guilt compared to only 9 percent of Japanese men (Rozin et al., 1999).
If you are medically overweight, cake is still appropriate to eat. If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s still possible (from the evidence) to have some cake and lose weight, so long as we knock guilt out of the experience. Diabetes no longer means that eating cake is risky now that we have insulin pumps, continuous glucose monitors and, most recently, systems that combine a pump and monitor for algorithm-driven automation of insulin delivery.
The true questions are:
- Can we adjust our way of thinking?
- Can we change from guilt to celebration?
- Can we go from shame to self-compassion?
It isn’t rocket science or magic. It simply takes some time and mental effort to choose to make this change.
What’s the evidence?
Pleasure is not sinful, impure nor overindulgent. And the evidence base is there (because in our veterinary world, we need evidence to make a change).
Eating mindfully, non-judgementally and in a self-compassionate way can help one cope with symptoms of anxiety and depression
In 2015, a study reported that eating mindfully, non-judgementally and in a self-compassionate way (Körner et al., 2015) can help one cope with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Self-compassion, we already know, is a protective factor against depression.
I meet many people in therapy who are high achievers, apparently successful, happy, beautiful and in great physical shape. But sometimes achieving gets in the way of enjoying, and self-judgement gets in the way of self-compassion. It is possible to have achievements, enjoyment and self-compassion all running together, and it takes effort.
My son asked me to buy him a giant jar of Nutella last week. He’s studying hard for exams and is generally a lovely person to me, his sister and everyone else. I bought it for him, and the first thing I did was dip a spoon into its sheen of deliciousness and eat it. I practise authentic self-compassion, I felt no guilt or shame, just joy and pleasure as I ate it mindfully. It was a true nutty chocolate paradise. I go to the gym because I want to be fit and healthy. They are very compatible side by side. One without the other would decrease my growth and my experience of life and simple pleasures.