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Feel guilty: You’ll help society

pablo luebert for the boston globe

‘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.


Ideally we would be motivated by positive feelings at least to the same extent as we are by negative ones. But the problem is that when we feel good about ourselves for helping others, we are not necessarily compelled to do more to feel even better. Instead we are tempted to reward ourselves, which unfortunately can offset our righteous behavior.

Social scientists call this phenomenon “moral licensing” — when we think that we have acted virtuously, we permit, or license, ourselves to do something for our own benefit. At worst, moral licensing cancels out the impact of our good deeds. An environmental campaign carried out in Lynnfield demonstrates how this may happen.


At a large building complex, households were randomly assigned to two groups: one that received weekly feedback on their water consumption and tips on how to reduce water usage, and one that did not. While the former group successfully reduced its use of water by an average of 6 percent compared with the latter, it also increased its electricity consumption by 5.6 percent. An evaluation concluded that the members of the households that were targeted by the campaign likely felt so good about reducing their water consumption that they gave themselves permission to use electricity more lavishly.

Besides moral licensing, another issue that both socially concerned activists and policy makers face is that their well-intentioned actions sometimes backfire because they cause resentment.

In our survey, Sunstein and I asked respondents how they reacted to a fictitious government policy that actively promoted use of environmentally friendly energy. The participants were divided into two groups. The first assumed that they had been automatically enrolled in a green energy program and then had to choose whether to stay or sign up for a less expensive but also dirtier provider. The second was asked to imagine that their energy plans had been canceled and that they were forced to choose a new energy plan from just two options: a green scheme or a cheaper but dirtier one.

Intuitively one might think that enrolling people by default would make them more compelled to use green energy than forcing them to choose between a green and a dirty provider, because the former policy is itself a normative statement of what the government considers to be the right choice. But our findings show that participants in the first group were actually less likely to keep the green energy plan than those in the second group were to register for one. This result suggests that some individuals who otherwise would have been interested in the environmentally friendly provider found it upsetting that the government would automatically enroll them. It therefore seems that they wanted to opt out of the program not because they lacked interest in protecting the environment, but simply because they were resentful toward the government policy.


Another study similarly demonstrated that well-meaning policies that promote socially desirable behaviors may fail because, as the authors reason, some may “protest against such government interventions even though they would have chosen it otherwise.” The researchers asked people about their attitudes toward a hypothetical savings account that would come with a high interest rate, but not make funds withdrawable for a decade. In this situation, too, intuition suggests that the government could encourage savings by automatically signing people up for an account. But the data showed otherwise. The study concluded that when participants imagined that the government registered them for a savings account by default, many of them wanted to opt out even though they most likely would have signed up “if they simply had been offered it.”


The bottom line is that when we are remorseful about missing out on opportunities to help others, we are often more likely to do the right thing. By contrast, well intentioned policies that attempt to promote socially desirable behaviors may ultimately boomerang either if they make people feel too good about themselves or if they cause resentment. Although there are clearly situations where taxes or mandates are appropriate to promote certain behaviors, they may lead to market distortions and loss of freedom.

But even when the government uses much “softer” interventions that do not restrict people’s choices, policy makers still need to be careful because their interventions may backfire. Policies that induce regret without causing resentment seem more likely to succeed. Though it may not be the most cheerful conclusion, it seems that guilt can be a force for good.

Simon Hedlin is an economic and legal researcher and a recent graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His latest paper, coauthored with Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School, is “Does Active Choosing Promote Green Energy Use? Experimental Evidence.”