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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