Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The power of guilt at dinnertime...


Mondays this term have been the busiest day of the week for me as I have to be in from 10am to 6pm and have five hours of lectures and seminars.  It was on one of these Mondays that I realised that I had not taken my chicken out the freezer to defrost.  This was problematic because if my chicken didn’t defrost in time then I would have had nothing to eat for dinner.  However, a simple phone call to my housemate asking her to get my chicken out of the freezer quickly resolved this issue.  Or so I thought…

When I returned home that evening after my long day at uni I discovered that, much to my dismay, my housemate had in fact not taken my chicken out of the freezer.  She was very apologetic about forgetting about this and could clearly see that I now had little options available for dinner, whereas she was busy cooking a large batch of chilli con carne.  When I then sheepishly asked if I could have some of her chilli for dinner instead she readily said yes, despite this being something she would not normally do.

This is an example of how guilt (the feelings of responsibility for a negative event that happened to someone else) can induce increased compliance to a request.  This was demonstrated in an experiment by Carlsmith and Gross (1969) in which participants were led to believe that they had administered electric shocks to a confederate as part of a learning test.  Following this the confederate asked the participant if they would be willing to phone a list of up to 50 people asking them to sign a petition to “Save the Redwoods” (a type of endangered tree found in California).  Participants’ compliance was measured in terms of how many phone calls out of a possible 50 they agreed to do.


As can be seen in the table 1 above, participants’ compliance was far greater in the shock condition compared to controls (i.e. they agreed to phone a far higher number of people).  Neither the perceived status of the confederate or the presence of a witness (whether the experimenter remained in the room or not) had a significant effect on the rate of compliance.  The authors suggested that this is because the participants felt very guilty about having just administered electric shocks to the confederate and one way to alleviate this guilt (as well as repair their own self-image) was to do the confederate a favour by complying with his request.

So although the guilt felt my housemate may not have been as extreme as that felt by these participants, this experiment does offers an explanation as to why she complied with my request to have some of her chilli for dinner - she wanted to alleviate the sense of guilt she felt by agreeing to a solution that would improve my outcome for dinner.  The chilli con carne was indeed very tasty and much appreciated... but maybe if this happens again I should ask for something bigger because it really does seem that, when harassed correctly, guilt can be a powerful tool of persuasion!

Carlsmith, J. M., & Gross, A. E. (1969). Some effects of guilt on compliance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 11, 232-239.

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