Guilt Works Better than Hope

February 16, 2006

Michael Strecker
Phone: (504) 865-5210

Guilt is more effective than hope or fear in persuading people to undertake self-protective measures such as eating better, wearing sunscreen or even building proper levee protection, according to a new study co-authored by Tulane University consumer behavior professor Mita Sujan. That's because guilt, unlike hope or fear, is an internally based emotion which makes a person feel accountable for results, Sujan says.

"It really doesn't matter whether the motivating emotion is positive or negative. What's more important is making a person feel accountable," Sujan says.

So while fear of the sun's damaging effects might make a person apply sunscreen, guilt over exposing themselves to a disease that could take them away from their loved ones is a greater impetus to action. Guilt is not the only motivating emotion. Challenging people, for example, rather than bolstering their hope, is also effective.

To arrive at their conclusions, Sujan and Kirsten A. Passyn, a management and marketing professor at Salisbury University, conducted field experiments with approximately 500 college students, examining behaviors such as getting vaccinated for a campus outbreak of meningitis, using sunscreen and eating more high-fiber foods. The study, which will be published in the March 2006 issue of "The Journal of Consumer Research," suggests a new emotion-based approach to encouraging healthy behaviors and has public policy implications as well, according to Sujan.

"Anticipated guilt or regret over not building a proper levee protection system is a better motivator for positive action than the hope that another hurricane will not come or the fear that one will," says Sujan, whose university was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000