Science: Guilt Makes You Heavy

October 14, 2013 | Kyle Chayka

Often times guilt is metaphorically described as a “weight on one’s conscience.” According to a recent study published by the scientific journal PLOS ONE, this statement may be more than a metaphor.

Guilt is a negative emotion that is defined by feelings of responsibility for an action or non-action that violates either societal or personal standards. For this study, researchers asked test subjects to recall an ethical or unethical that they had previously done. After this volunteers were asked the following “Compared to your average weight, how much do you feel you weigh right now?” of which test subjects were asked to determine feelings of either “lightness” of “heaviness”on a scale of 1 to 11.

Tests later revealed that participants who experienced feelings guilt reported weighing significantly more than participants that did not share these feelings. Although much of this research has focused on the effects of guilt on our perceptions of weight, it is also important to note that several other emotions were taken into consideration such as disgust, pride, and sadness. After performing additional tests there has been no conclusive evidence that the presence of these emotions can explain the perception of additional weight in test subjects.

Studies 1–3 demonstrated that unethical acts led to more subjective body weight compared to control conditions. Studies 2 and 3 indicated that heightened feelings of guilt mediated the effect, whereas other negative emotions did not. Study 4 demonstrated a perceptual consequence. Specifically, an induction of guilt affected the perceived effort necessary to complete tasks that were physical in nature, compared to minimally physical tasks.