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

The Psychology of Guilt

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

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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
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The Psychology of Guilt: How Guilt Changes The Way We Spend
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Matt Johnson Ph.D.

Matt Johnson, Ph.D. is the founder of the consumer psychology blog PopNeuro, and instructor of the Neuromarketing Bootcamp™, which trains marketers to ethically apply the principles of neuroscience.View Author posts