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Relieving Negative Emotions: Guilt Increases Helping

15 January, 2016 - 09:20

Although positive moods can increase helping, negative emotions can do so too. The idea is that if helping can reduce negative feelings we are experiencing, then we may help in order to get rid of those bad feelings (Cialdini, Darby, & Vincent, 1973). One emotion that is particularly important in this regard is guilt. We feel guilt when we think that we (or others we feel close to) may have caused harm to another person (Tangney, 2003). The experience of guilt increases our desire to create positive relationships with other people. Because we hate to feel guilty, we will go out of our way to reduce any feelings of guilt that we may be experiencing. And one way to relieve our guilt is by helping. Put simply, feelings of guilt lead us to try to make up for our transgressions in any way possible, including by helping others.

In research by Dennis Regan and his colleagues (Regan, Williams, & Sparling, 1972), students were led to believe that they had broken another person’s camera, which in turn made them feel guilty. Then another person presented a need for help. As predicted, the students who were feeling guilty were more likely to help the second person than were those who were not feeling guilty. Thus, participants who unintentionally harmed one person ended up being more helpful to another person who had nothing to do with the original source of the guilt. This situation illustrates the function of guilt: we feel guilty when we think we have harmed our relationships with others, and the guilt reminds us that we need to work to repair these transgressions (Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994). It is no coincidence that advertisers sometimes try to invoke guilt to get people to contribute to charitable causes. This approach is particularly effective when people feel that they are able to engage in the necessary helping (Basil, Ridgway, & Basil, 2008).

An interesting twist on our need to wash away our sins by helping concerns the so-called “Macbeth effect,” the observation that people tend to want to cleanse themselves when they perceive that they have violated their own ethical standards (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006). Fascinatingly, if people are actually given the opportunity to wash their hands (or even watch someone else wash their hands), this reduces the amount of guilt they experience, along with amount of prosocial behavior they subsequently engage in (Xu, Bègue, & Bushman, 2014). The amount of guilt that we experience thus appears to be an important determinant of our helping behavior.

But what about other emotions, such as sadness, anger, and fear? It turns out that we also may be more likely to help when we are fearful or sad—again to make ourselves feel better. Jonas, Schimel, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski (2002) found that people who were induced to think about their own death—for instance, when they were interviewed in front of a funeral home—became more altruistic.