The Psychology of Guilt: How Guilt Changes The Way We Spend


, ,
The Psychology of Guilt

A little guilt can go a long way, especially in terms of how we treat money. Read on to know the consumer psychology of guilt.

“True! —nervous —very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses —not destroyed —not dulled them.”

So begins Edgar Allen Poe’s famous The Tell-Tale Heart. It’s the story of a murderer who becomes so overcome with their guilt that they hallucinate the sounds of their dead victim’s heart. Guilt becomes a powerful character in the story, ultimately leading the murderer to uncover the body and admit their wrongdoing.

It’s arguably the most famous story about the power of guilt. It alludes to its complexity and mercurial potency. When we feel we’ve done something wrong, our psyche acts in a strange, unpredictable way to resolve this feeling.

Guilt isn’t an emotion reserved just for grim crimes. It’s an emotion we’re all familiar with, especially as consumers. To better understand its impact on how we spend, we need to dive into the neuromarketing of guilt.

Also read 8 Psychology-Based Signs Someone Secretly Has A Crush On You

The Consumer Psychology of Guilt

Many advertising campaigns use guilt as their primary emotion. Think of the anti-smoking ads. They target parents of young children with messages like, “When you smoke, they smoke.” And for every anti-texting and driving ad, there’s a graphic portrayal of a tragic accident caused by your inability to put down the phone.

This persuasion tactic makes complete sense. After all, we have a strong negativity bias—we’re more sensitive to things with potential harm than things that provide pleasure. Losing $20 hurts more than gaining $20 feels good. We’re more motivated to keep the $20 bill in our wallets than we are to gain a crisp new one.

Guilt, however, runs deeper than simple negativity. It emphasizes something that it assumes the person has already done. And because of this, it threatens our positive sense of self.

We’re all motivated to see ourselves in a positive light. If we’re led to believe we’ve done something wrong, we compensate for this in other ways.

Imagine accidentally bumping into an older woman while you’re crossing the street. Even though you didn’t mean to, this may damage your positive sense of self. To prove to yourself that you’re a good person, you’d go out of your way to do something highly moral. You may be inclined to give to a charity, check up on a friend, or walk the next old lady across the street.

You might not realize why you’re doing it, but guilt motivates you to compensate for your misdeed. A little guilt can go a long way.

This plays out in a similar way with our spending habits. If we feel bad about a purchase, it forces us to wrestle with a feeling, and we’re driven to alleviate it. Just like The Tell-Tale Heart, guilt itself becomes a character in the story, and we can’t predict its effect on our consumer behavior.

Also read 5 Psychological Reasons Behind Nail Biting

Guilt, Consumer Behavior, and Compensation

Most people think the use of sweatshop labor is unethical, and want there to be some form of punishment for corporations who use it. But who wants to punish sweatshops using corporations more? The answer is surprising: People who recently purchased goods made from sweatshop labor wanted stronger punishments for corporations who do so. Surprisingly, these people are also much more vocal and angry about their anti-sweatshop stance.

Studies Have Shown That When We Feel Guilty About Receiving
The Psychology Of Guilt: How Guilt Changes The Way We Spend

This all comes down to guilt:

When people feel complicit in moral wrongdoing, they try to alleviate this guilt and protect their images of themselves as good people. Again, a little guilt can go a long way.

Guilt about past purchases has a strange effect on future behavior. But the effect of guilt isn’t limited to products, but with money itself. From a rational perspective, money is fundamentally fungible—a dollar is a dollar is a dollar. But in practice, certain dollars can be infused with meaning—what psychologists call an “affective tag,” which then influences what that money is spent on.

Studies have shown that when we feel guilty about receiving money, or feel we haven’t deserved it, we’re much more likely to give it away. For example, if we receive it from a source we don’t like—in one experiment, it was the tobacco company Philip Morris—the money feels bad. And in response, we’re driven to cleanse ourselves of these negative feelings by spending it in a positive way, such as donating to charity.

In contrast, if we receive money through a relative or from someone we like, we’re much more likely to spend it on hedonistic things like ice cream. Unencumbered by the conflict of tainted money, we feel free to spend this on ourselves.

Obtaining guilty money creates an internal conflict:

We want money, but we also want to feel as though we’re good people. Classic cognitive dissonance. If we accept money made from dirty, immoral ways, we naturally feel compelled to resolve this so we can tell ourselves we’re still good people, alleviating this dissonance and maintaining a positive self-image.

In this way, receiving guilty money leads us to act in a highly moral manner, to compensate. Depending on the source of the guilt, it leads us to act in specific, compensatory ways. Research has found that if the money comes from a moral violation, the person will spend it in prosocial ways, like giving to a charity.

On the other hand, if the money comes about from personal guilt (such as a failure of self-control), this increases spending on things self-improvement-related, such as exercise equipment or meditation apps. Whatever flaw the money highlights, we spend in a way that compensates for it. Money is the sin, consumerism is the confessional.

Guilt is a mercurial emotion and a potent force in our lives. And when we view it through the lens of neuromarketing, we can clearly see its impacts on our purchasing decisions. In short, guilt leads us down a similar path as our original protagonist:

“I admit the deed! —tear up the planks! here, here!”

Edgar Allen Poe may have just described The Tell-Tale Consumer

Also read The Psychology Of Toxic Leaders

Please share this article with anyone who you may think will find it valuable and helpful.


Allard, T., & White, K. (2015). Cross-Domain Effects of Guilt on Desire for Self-Improvement Products. Journal of Consumer Research, 42, 401-419.

Gino, F., & Mogilner, C. (2014). Time, money, and morality. Psychological science, 25 2, 414-21 .

Levav, J., & Mcgraw, A. P. (2009). Emotional Accounting: How Feelings about Money Influence Consumer 
Choice. Journal of Marketing Research, 46(1), 66–80.

Park, H.Y., & Meyvis, T. (2019). Moral Accounting: How Consumers Spend Money Tainted by Guilt. Cognition & Culture: Culture.

Written by: Matt Johnson, Ph.D
Originally appeared on: Psychlogy Today
Republished with permission
The Psychology of Guilt pin
The Psychology Of Guilt: How Guilt Changes The Way We Spend

— Share —

— About the Author —

Leave a Reply

Up Next

The Zeigarnik Effect: The Reason You Feel Constantly Overwhelmed

The Zeigarnik Effect: Why You Feel Constantly Overwhelmed

Ever wonder why your to-do list seems to weigh you down, even when you haven’t touched it in hours? That’s the Zeigarnik effect in play! It’s the sneaky reason you can’t stop thinking about unfinished tasks and feel constantly overwhelmed. But don’t worry, we will discuss how to overcome Zeigarnik effect.

You know how having too many open Chrome tabs bogs your computer down?

The same happens to your brain.

Unfinished tasks keep “running” in the background.

It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect.

Here’s how it works and what to do about it…

Up Next

Why Do I Hate My Father? 8 Effective Ways to Mend Your Relationship

Why Do I Hate My Father? Tips to Reconnect with Your Dad

“Why do I hate my father?” – if you have ever asked yourself this question, then trust me, you are not alone. Not having a good relationship with your father is one of the most painful things to experience in life.

Father-child relationships can be really complicated in many cases, and it’s normal to feel a mix of emotions. Whether it’s due to past hurts, misunderstandings, or present conflicts, your strained relationship with him can be really challenging and hard to navigate.

But there’s always light at the end of the tunnel, and I have some good news for you: it is possible to improve your bonding with your dad. Today, we are going to talk about some of the best ways to strengthen your bond with your father, and turn things around for the better.

So, ready to know how you and your father can reconne

Up Next

8 Signs A Man Is The Source Of His Own Misery: Self-Sabotaging Behaviors

Signs A Man Is The Source Of His Own Misery: Self-Sabotage

Ever wonder why he’s always gloomy and unhappy? These 8 signs reveal how he might be the source of his own misery, with self-sabotaging behaviors being an obstacle his own path to happiness.

Self-sabotage is often the biggest obstacle to happiness.

Self-sabotaging behaviors, negative mindsets, and the absence of emotional intelligence can unknowingly pave the path to a cycle of unhappiness. While external circumstances influence our success and well-being, the biggest obstacles to happiness are often found within.

Up Next

How To Talk To Anyone With Confidence? 14 Psychological Hacks For Any Situation

How To Talk To Anyone With Confidence? Fun Tricks

Do you ever wonder how to talk to anyone with confidence? Small talk may be intimidating at times but it is an ability that everyone can learn – the art of conversation!

Be it a party, a romantic date, or an office environment; one can use certain psychological tips that will help with the process and make it even more fun.

So, if you have trouble finding the right things to say, or are always in the corner of a gathering, here is how to talk to people and participate actively in different social settings with confidence.

Up Next

Why It’s So Hard to Admit You’re Wrong: 7 Surprising Psychological Barriers You Didn’t Know About

Why Is It So Hard To Admit To Being Wrong? Psychological Reasons You Need To Know

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a heated debate, feeling that gnawing sensation that you might be wrong, but don’t want to admit it? Or maybe you are watching someone double down on their stance, even when all evidence points to the contrary, and wondering, “Why can’t they just say they’re wrong?” It’s a common scenario that plays out in classrooms, workplaces, and even family dinners, leaving many of us puzzled about why it is so hard to admit to being wrong.

Admitting we’re wrong isn’t just about swallowing our pride. For some people, admitting an error feels like a failure on a personal level, thus threatening their self-esteem and identity. Others worry about being judged and what consequences may follow. It’s not stubbornness alone, but this innate fear of exposure and vulnerability that makes it hard to

Up Next

3 Relationship Check In Questions On Love, According To A Psychologist

Relationship Check In Questions For Couples In Love

It’s common for us to push relationships down our list of priorities when we get busy. We think we’ll make up for lost time later, assuming everything will be fine. But what if everything isn’t fine? Below are 3 crucial relationship check in questions for couples to make life simpler!

According to a recent publication of Current Issues in Personality Psychology, discussions were shown to be an effective strategy for solving disagreements and improving the quality of relationships.

So, a monthly relationship relationship check in questions can help keep your love boat afloat. Once a month, you and your partner can sit across from each other and talk. It isn’t about pointing fingers or finding fault; it’s about feeding the connection

Up Next

7 Situations Where You Should Stay Silent (Even If You Don’t Want To)

Situations Where You Should Stay Silent At All Costs!

Have you ever realized that being quiet might sometimes be the smartest thing to do? That’s right – there are 7 situations where you should stay silent in life, not because you fear speaking, but because it simply means gaining control over your own actions and thoughts.

Sometimes, silence is indeed golden. It can save you from unnecessary drama, stop a fight from growing worse, or even make you seem more knowledgeable and composed than you really are.

This is not about being scared to voice your opinions; it’s about knowing why you should remain