How can you do this to me?
It’s the classic guilt-inducing line, and in interpersonal relationships, sometimes it works. But research shows that when you’re trying to change people’s behaviour on a larger scale, not only does it fail to work – it can backfire.
A guilt-based attempt at persuasion usually comes in two parts, one intended to make the viewer feel guilty (“Will you turn your back on fill-in-your-needy-group-here?”) and the other presented as a way to reduce the guilt (“Give to our charity/buy our product/use our service to help them!”).
A number of small studies have compared high-guilt and low- or no-guilt appeals, and a few years back, Daniel O’Keefe did a meta-analysis of as many of these studies as he could find. His results showed that high-guilt messages did arouse guilt as they were intended to, but they were also significantly less persuasive than low-guilt messages.
This was also shown in a more recent study on public service announcements about binge drinking. Nidhi Agrawal and Adam Duhachek asked university students to write about an emotional episode in which they experienced extreme shame or guilt, then showed them posters based on the above Ontario poster and asked them how likely they were to binge drink during the next year.
Their results consistently showed that students who were already feeling shame or guilt were more likely to drink to excess after having viewed the anti-drinking posters – and more likely to believe that their own drinking wouldn’t lead to the consequences shown on the posters. Further experiments showed that this was because the posters made the students feel defensive and therefore more inclined to resist the posters’ messages.
Agrawal and Duhachek concluded that guilt-based messages need to be positioned carefully: don’t place them where your target audience is already likely to be feeling guilt or shame.
On a practical level, this means putting your messages in positive surroundings where their readers are less likely to be feeling ashamed or guilty. (I’d recommend particularly avoiding courtrooms, jails, confessionals and malls on Christmas Eve.) Better yet, use positive messages about how to avoid a behaviour rather than trying to shame your audience into complying.
When it isn’t backfiring, there’s no doubt that guilt does affect our actions positively. Many studies have shown that a person who feels guilty about a recent behaviour tends to behave more altruistically afterward – at least partly because we like to bring our self-esteem back up when it’s low. But time and place are important, because the mood of your audience is important.
And if you want to try using guilt to get your kids to clean their rooms, go right ahead. My parents will attest that it didn’t work very well on me… but maybe you’ll have better luck.