“I hereby pronounce the defendant guilty”; and the hammer comes down. The courts, lawyers, police, and prisons; all instruments of the criminal justice system designed primarily to give out punishment. Sometimes the punishment is justified and sometimes it is not; but almost everyone believes in having some type of penal system because most criminals sure as hell are not going to punish themselves.
And why would anyone want to punish himself/herself anyways? We all strive for happiness in life and the fundamental nature of punishment is to remove opportunities for being happy. From the outset the mere concept of self-punishment sounds dubious and absurd. But we all know that self-punishment is very much a real phenomenon.
For Freud (1916), self-punishment was induced by guilt that arose from a clash between ego (conscious self) and superego’s (cultural values internalized) standards. Modern day cognitive psychology literature pictures guilt as a positive emotion because guilt usually emboldens us to take compensatory actions in order to restore severed social bonds (Frank, 1988). Theoretically, the inclination for self-punishment emerges when we encounter circumstances that prevent us from taking compensatory actions, for instance when adultery ends in divorce (Lindsay-Hartz et al., 1995).
On account of the fact that a theory is no replacement for empirical experimentation, Nelissen and Zeelenberg (2009), researchers at Tilburg University, the Netherlands, recently strived to explore the potential function of guilt as an evoker of self-punishment through a series of experiments. 126 participants in one of Nelissen and Zeelenberg’s experiments were told that they were partaking in a visual perception skills study where the goal was to see how different types of reward and punishment influenced participants’ perceptual abilities.
All participants first went through one round of testing where for 10 trials they were exposed to a visual stimulus comprising of circles of various sizes and the goal was to estimate the number of circles within three seconds after each trial. The participants were told that the more they concentrated the better they would do on counting circles task. For each estimation plus or minus three to the actual amount the participants were awarded 10 points. It was in the interest of participants to try to earn as many points as possible because at the end of the study they were allowed to cash in their points for lottery tickets (10 points per ticket) and win real money.
In reality this whole experimental setup was a sham. The visual stimulus was designed in a way where it was impossible to count the number of circles no matter how hard one concentrated. It was predetermined that all participants would get 7 trials out of 10 correct, earning them a total of 70 points for round one.
For round two the participants were told that they had been randomly paired up with some anonymous person also partaking in this experiment and for this round they would be earning points for each other. The experimental manipulation occurred here where for control condition the participants earned 80 points for their partner and vice versa, while in the guilt condition the partners earned 80 points for the participants but the participants were predetermined to earn only 20 points for their anonymous pair. Earning only 20 points for one’s partner while the partner managed to earn 80 points for the participant was guilt eliciting because it meant the participants had not concentrated hard enough during this round to earn more points.
Round three was the final round that allowed the experimenters to test out if guilt really induced individuals to punish themselves under circumstances where they were unable to compensate for their wrongdoings. For this round the participants were told that not only would they get to earn points for right answers but also lose points for incorrect answers. The participants were given the choice to deduct anywhere from 1 to 10 points for each incorrect answer. In “no social repair” condition the participants were deducting points for themselves. And for “social repair” condition the participants were deducting points for the anonymous individual that they were paired up with in the previous round. If the modern guilt induced self-punishment theoretical perspective is true, then one would expect participants in the “no social repair” to deduct higher points for themselves compared to control condition and lower points for one’s partner in the “social repair” condition compared to control condition.
The results of this study confirmed a portion of modern guilt induced self-punishment theoretical perspective by showing that for “no social repair” condition the participants indeed deducted higher points for themselves compared to the control condition. For the “social repair” condition the participants did not deduct lesser points for their partners compared to deduction for one’s partners that occurred in the control condition.
In conclusion, the study by Nelissen and Zeelenberg (2009) shows that the guilty do punish themselves when they are unable to engage in activities that allows them to compensate for their guilt. Moreover, these experimental results also reveal that when the guilty are able to engage in compensatory behavior, the actual act of restitution is nonexistent. At least as far as this study is concerned, there is zero immediate pro social behavior that arises from feeling guilty. It is more likely that guilt induced self-punishment serves as a signal for members of one’s community that one is appreciative of community standards and will try his/her best to avoid violating them in the future (Caplovitz-Barrett, 1995).
Caplovitz-Barrett, K. (1995). A functionalist approach to shame and guilt. In J.P. Tangney, & K.W. Fischer (Eds.), Self-concious emotions: The psychology of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride. New York: The Guilford Press.
Frank, R.H. (1988). Passions within reason: The strategic role of the emotions. New York: Norton.
Freud, S. (1916). Some character-types met with in psycho-analytic work. In J.Strachey (Ed.), The standard ed. of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 14, pp. 309-336). London: Hogarth Press.
Lindsay-Hartz, J., de Rivera, J., & Mascolo, M.F. (1995). Differentiating shame and guilt and their effects on motivation. In J.P. Tangney, & K.W. Fischer (Eds.), Self-concious emotions: The psychology of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride. New York: The Guilford Press.
Nelissen, R.M.A., & Zeelenberg, M. (2009). When guilt evokes self-punishment: evidence for the existence of a dobby effect. Emotion, 2009, 9, 118-122.