Today I write in The Boston Globe about guilt, which can really be a force for good. An excerpt:
“SO IF WE are going to be kind,” wrote the South African author J. M. Coetzee, “let it be out of simple generosity, not because we feel guilty.” The notion that we should give our time and resources to others because we enjoy being benevolent is a compelling ethos. But research shows that it is not that simple: Oftentimes when we feel bad about ourselves, we are, in fact, more likely to do good things.
Feelings of guilt, in particular, can prompt us to take action for the benefit of others. The reason for this is straightforward: Nobody likes regret or remorse, so we act in a way that we feel less guilty. Consider, for instance, one study that found that participants were more likely to want to reduce water consumption by reusing towels when staying in a hotel if they felt guilty about frequently changing their towels.
Cass Sunstein and I found a similar result — that guilt is a powerful motivator — in a recent experimental study at Harvard Law School. We surveyed some 1,200 Americans and asked them whether they would be interested in enrolling in a green energy program if their state government offered them the opportunity to join one. The respondents who said that they would feel guilty if they did not enroll had a higher likelihood of being interested in signing up.
In other words, when people regret making a choice that they think ultimately may harm others — such as changing towels or consuming less environmentally friendly energy — they can be spurred to do the right thing. And that can have serious implications for policy makers.
Read the full article here.