Guilt May Fuel the Impulse to Injure Oneself

Nonsuicidal self-injuries (NSSI) are believed to be inflicted as a method of coping with distressing emotions. People who cut, burn, or otherwise harm themselves may do so in an attempt to escape overwhelming feelings of sadness, pain, guilt, depression, or shame. Although the research on NSSI is growing, little attention has been focused on the relationship between guilt and NSSI. Yoel Inbar of the Department of Social Psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands recently conducted an experiment to determine if people were more motivated to hurt themselves by feelings of guilt versus feeling of sadness or ambiguity.

For the study, Inbar recruited 46 college students and assigned them to either a neutral, sad, or guilty condition. The participants were instructed to recall an event that elicited the assigned emotion and write about the severity of their emotion at the time of the event and presently. They were then given one set of electric shocks, after which they were allowed to either increase or decrease the intensity of the remaining five sets of shocks. After the shock treatment, the participants were assessed for levels of sadness and guilt. Inbar found that the participants who recalled guilt-inspiring events chose to increase the shock severity, while those who remembered sad or neutral events did not. Additionally, the guilty participants reported feeling less guilt after they received the shocks than they had before.

The evidence presented in this study suggests that guilt acts as a motivator for self-injurious behavior. The participants in this experiment did not acknowledge being consciously aware of this relationship, but may have been prompted intuitively. “Such intuitively driven moral judgments are quite common,” Inbar said. Although some people who feel guilty may choose to diminish their guilt in other ways, such as doing a good deed to make up for their bad one, others may feel as if the level of their atonement must match the level of their transgression. Existing research has shown that certain emotions, such as self-anger and shame, often precede a self-injurious event. Inbar believes that future research should look at how these states influence the decision to self-injure compared to feelings of guilt. It would also be prudent to examine if people who have a history of self-injury to assuage guilt would choose a good deed if that option was available to them.

Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D. A., Gilovich, T., Ariely, D. (2012). Moral masochism: On the connection between guilt and self-punishment. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029749

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  • kenya

    October 12th, 2012 at 2:56 PM

    I want to know where this guilt comes from when you see this kind of behavior in younger kids. What could have possibly happened in their lives to make them feel this sort of guilt that would cause them to want to harm themselves?

  • TODD

    October 12th, 2012 at 11:45 PM

    Its never easy to get over that guilt inside.No matter how tough you think you are that inner guilt has more power than anything else.While that in itself is not a bad thing (as it can make a person aware of his misdeeds) I think the action that a person takes to get over that guilt needs to be studies.That is what matters more and that is what needs to be a healthy option rather than hurting oneself or inflicting pain and injury.

  • Breezie

    October 13th, 2012 at 6:44 AM

    No matter what kind of wrong I have done to someone, i just fail to have that mentality that punishing or hurting myself would be the answer for atoning for that wrong. I find that most people would much prefer an apology to you harming yourself. After all, I they know that you have hurt yourself as a result of you thinking that this will make it better for them, then they are probably going to be feeling guilty and like they have driven you to this point. I urge anyone who has this desire to please get help.

  • lidia

    October 14th, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    its not for nothing that some of us end up hurting ourselves.there could be a myriad of reasons for it.although I try not to sometimes I do end up hurting myself and it could be due to guilt,stress or anxiety.its good that these things are being talked about instead of just labeling us as crazy!

  • Lindie R

    October 15th, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    I have read all about this kind of atonement thing and have always thought it kind of strange but I had only associated with those who are monks or some kind of religious order I guess.

    I have never given too much thought that there are some real world people who I could be living around, or for all I know being frineds with, who take to this kind fo behavior when they feel that they have done something that requires them to inflict punishment on themselves.

    There have been things I have felt bad about in my past, and I guess you could say that sometimes we all want to hurt ourselves in little ways to make up for something that we have done to hurt another. I have certainly beat up on myself mentally, but never physically, and the thought of doing that just makes me kind of stunned.

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