Guilt Really Does Weigh You Down

10/12/2013 09:43 am ET | Updated Oct 18, 2013

Guilt really can make you feel weighed down, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo and Princeton University found that when people think about times that they've done something wrong, they have a heavier self-perceived weight.

"We found that recalling personal unethical acts led participants to report increased subjective body weight as compared to recalling ethical acts, unethical acts of others or no recall. We also found that this increased sense of weight was related to participants' heightened feelings of guilt, and not other negative emotions, such as sadness or disgust," study researcher Martin Day, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said in a statement.

"Although people sometimes associate importance with 'heaviness,' we found no evidence that importance could explain this finding," Day added. "For example, ethical deeds were rated just as important as unethical actions, but only unethical, guilt-inducing memories led to increased reports of weight."

The study, which is published in the journal PLOS ONE, included four separate experiments. In one of the experiements, 153 college students were asked to do two tasks. They were split up into three groups: The first was asked to think about a time they did something ethical, the second was asked to think about a time they did something unethical, and a third group was not asked to think about a memory. Then, they were asked to say whether they felt heaver or lighter than their average weight.

As the researchers predicted, people who thought about an unethical moment perceived their weight to be heavier than those who thought about the ethical moment, or those not asked to think about any memories.

The second experiment was similar to the first, except it involved recalling either an unethical act the person did him or herself, or an unethical act performed by a famous person. Researchers found that perceived weight was heavier if a person recalled an unethical act he or she did, than if they recalled an unethical act done by a distant figure. The third experiment involved the same premise as the second, but with a more concise description of the ethical or unethical moment. The results were similar to the second experiment, with unethical act recall being linked with higher self-perceived weight.

In the fourth experiment, researchers wanted to see how recalling an unethical act affected the perceived effort needed to help someone with a task, with some of the tasks being physical (like carrying groceries up stairs) and some not (like lending money).

"We found no differences between conditions for the perceived effort of the nonphysical actions. However, those who recalled unethical memories, which can be accompanied by sensations of weight, perceived the physical behaviors to involve even greater effort to complete compared to ratings provided by those in a control condition," Day explained in the statement.

Recently, a study in the journal Current Biology confirmed that it's hard to take guilt and blame, and that our brains have a way of coping with this by trying to provide a time distance between the action and the negative effect.

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