This shows a man.
This analysis also showed that guilt can be an effective motivator for action when it comes to distant and broader issues, such as people suffering after a natural disaster or from social injustice. Credit: Neuroscience News

Guilt Trips: A Fine Line in Persuasion Tactics

Summary: Guilt, often harnessed in persuasive communications, has been scrutinized in a meta-analysis revealing its nuanced impact on behavior change.

Researchers found that guilt appeals are more effective when they evoke a general societal responsibility rather than direct blame.

The study highlights that guilt can motivate actions for environmental and educational causes but is less effective for personal health decisions.

Key Facts:

  1. Guilt appeals have a small overall persuasive effect, particularly when they don’t explicitly blame individuals for specific problems.
  2. Guilt is more compelling when the issue seems solvable and actionable steps are provided.
  3. The emotion is more persuasive in environmental and educational contexts than in personal health matters.

Source: Washington State University

Invoking a sense of guilt—a common tool used by advertisers, fundraisers and overbearing parents everywhere—can backfire if it explicitly holds a person responsible for another’s suffering, a meta-analysis of studies revealed.

While guilt is widely used to try and persuade people to act, research has been mixed on its effectiveness in spurring behavior change. This analysis, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that overall guilt had only a small persuasive effect, which is in line with previous research.

However, researchers uncovered that guilt worked better when it was more “existential,” meaning it appealed to a person’s general desire to better society rather than giving them direct responsibility for a specific problem, a tactic that might be seen as overly manipulative.

“Guilt can be effective, but it will not generate some magic outcome,” said lead author Wei Peng, an assistant professor in Washington State University’s Murrow College of Communication.

“The surprising finding from this meta-analysis is that making people feel they are responsible for misdeeds or transgressions is not actually effective. Practitioners may want to consider the many different factors that make guilt appeals more persuasive.”

For this study, researchers analyzed data from 26 studies involving more than 7,500 participants. In addition to the effect of responsibility, they found that guilt seems to work better when it is clear that the problem can be changed and possible actions to take are proposed.

Peng and his colleagues also found that guilt was more persuasive with certain subject matter: namely in environmental and educational issues. It was less effective in health communications.

The authors noted that health topics may be complicated by the fact that the desired behavior can affect the individual as well as hold benefits for others, such as getting vaccinated for COVID-19.

This analysis also showed that guilt can be an effective motivator for action when it comes to distant and broader issues, such as people suffering after a natural disaster or from social injustice.

Guilt, like pride and shame, is thought to be a unique emotion to human beings, tied to high-level pursuits that go beyond meeting an individual’s basic needs, Peng said, such as a person’s role in creating a better group, country or overall human society.

This may help explain why inducing guilty feelings in relation to more distant issues work better than ones that are very personal.

“When people want to use guilt in an appeal, it may be better to use it implicitly to try to make other people feel they should take on this responsibility, rather than say explicitly that they are responsible for what other people are suffering,” Peng said.

About this psychology research news

Author: Sara Zaske
Source: Washington State University
Contact: Sara Zaske – Washington State University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
When guilt works: a comprehensive meta-analysis of guilt appeals” by Wei Peng et al. Frontiers in Psychology


When guilt works: a comprehensive meta-analysis of guilt appeals

Introduction: Guilt appeals are widely used as a persuasive approach in various areas of practice. However, the strength and direction of the persuasive effects of guilt appeals are mixed, which could be influenced by theoretical and methodological factors.

Method: The present study is a comprehensive meta-analysis of 26 studies using a random-effects model to assess the persuasive effects of guilt appeals. In total, 127 effect sizes from seven types of persuasive outcomes (i.e., guilt, attitude, behavior, behavioral intention, non-guilt emotions, motivation, and cognition) were calculated based on 7,512 participants.

Results: The analysis showed a small effect size of guilt appeals [g = 0.19, 95% CI (0.10, 0.28)]. The effect of guilt appeals was moderated by the theoretical factors related to appraisal and coping of guilt arousal, including attributed responsibility, controllability and stability of the causal factors, the proximity of perceiver-victim relationship, recommendation of reparative behaviors, and different outcome types. The effect was also associated with methods used in different studies.

Discussion: Overall, the findings demonstrated the persuasive effects of guilt appeals, but theoretical and methodological factors should be considered in the design and testing of guilt appeals. We also discussed the practical implications of the findings.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.