Guilt can make people feel heavier
An article published in the journal PLOS ONE concluded that the emotional experience of guilt may be reflected in a bodily sensation. Researchers say they found that when people were asked to recall an unethical act they had committed, they said their bodies felt heavier.
Embodied cognition is an emerging field in psychology that looks at how thoughts and emotions interact with our bodies and guide behavior. Guilt is powerful because it can help us correct mistakes and prevent future wrongdoing. Because people often say guilt is like a ‘weight on one’s conscience,’ researchers set out to see if guilt could actually embody a sensation of weight.
In a series of studies, researchers asked participants to think of a time they did something unethical, such as lying, stealing, cheating, etc. Afterward they were asked to rate their subjective feeling of their own body weight – Did they feel less weight than usual? The same weight or more weight? They compared those responses to the participants’ in control conditions who were asked to recall an ethical memory, a memory of someone else’s unethical actions or were asked not to recall a memory.
Results showed that recalling personal unethical acts lead to participants reporting an increased feeling of body weight compared to recalling ethical acts, unethical acts of others or no recall. Researchers also found that the increased sense of weight corresponded to heightened feelings of guilt but not other emotions, such as sadness or disgust.
In another study, researchers looked at whether unethical memories would affect the effort to complete a variety of helping tasks, such as carrying groceries upstairs for someone or giving someone spare change. Subjects felt the tasks that required physical exertion seemed to involve an even greater effort to complete after recalling an unethical memory, but non-physical tasks caused no change in weight perception.