Field of Science

A dose of pain to take the guilt away

Can you take away the feelings of guilt through self harm? Well, here's one way to find out.

Take 59 Australian students, and split them into three groups. Get two groups to write about something they did that they feel guilty about.

Then get one of those groups to stick their arms into iced water - if you've ever tried to do that for a long time, it hurts! The other group gets nice warm water. The third group writes about just some everyday interaction, but then they get the ice bath too.

When Brock Bastian, of the University of Queensland, and colleagues did that they found a couple of things. First the students who wrote about a guilt-ridden experience really did feel more guilty.

Second, these guilt-ridden students kept their arms in the ice bath longer than the guilt-free students. What's more, their level of guilt dropped more than the guilt-ridden students who had a warm water bath. The figure shows the averages.

This is the second study I know of to show this effect. The other one, published last year, used a different technique (it made people feel like they'd let their partner down in a co-operative game, and the self-punishment was not physical), but the basic results were the same.

Any one study is always a bit suspect. But two independent studies with similar results is much more robust. Darn it, there might just be something to all this guilt-atonement thing. Here's what Bastian and colleagues have to say:

...pain may be perceived as repayment for sin in three ways. First, pain is the embodiment of atonement. Just as physical cleansing washes away sin (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006), physical pain is experienced as a penalty, and paying that penalty reestablishes moral purity. Second, subjecting oneself to pain communicates remorse to others (including God) and signals that one has paid for one’s sins, and this removes the threat of external punishment. Third, tolerating the punishment of pain is a test of one’s virtue, reaffirming one’s positive identity to oneself and others.

But there's still a couple of nagging doubts in my mind. It seems clear that self-punishment could be a signal to others that you're truly sorry, but in this experiment people actually felt less guilty (i.e. less sorry) after the pain. What good is it to me to know that you were sorry, but that you're over it now because you've stuck a needle in your arm?

Secondly, is this a cross cultural effect? Both these experiments were conducted in countries aligned to Christian notions of atonement. Although religions often have a pain fixation, usually it involves displays of fidelity, rituals of self enhancement, or attempts to reach a transcendent state (or all three). It's only Christianity that's made atonement and penance a central part of ritual self-harm.

If that's the case, then is what we're seeing here a basic human instinct, or is it a cultural construction? Do these students feel less guilty after self harming simply because that's what happens in the films?
Bastian B, Jetten J, & Fasoli F (2011). Cleansing the Soul by Hurting the Flesh: The Guilt-Reducing Effect of Pain. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 21245493

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. This could explain a lot, especially our medieval notions of the sick being spiritual architects of their own suffering, and that pain is somehow "character-building." This idea plays nicely into the hands of those who want to deny medical care to others. It was a central tenet of Mother Theresa's worldview.

  2. It seems clear that self-punishment could be a signal to others that you're truly sorry, but in this experiment people actually felt less guilty (i.e. less sorry) after the pain. What good is it to me to know that you were sorry, but that you're over it now because you've stuck a needle in your arm?

    Well, the sensation of feeling less guilty could be the mechanism that triggers people to display the costly signal. After all, correct me if I'm wrong, but nobody is suggesting that the majority of costly signalling is performed with full awareness of what is going on, right? People engaging in costly signalling generally believe they are being genuine, I would think.

    When I am really thirsty and I drink a glass of water and my sensation of thirst is immediately quenched, it's not like my body is already fully rehydrated and that's why the sensation went away. The sensation went away because some nice cool water passed through my mouth. I imagine if you could tap into somebody's esophagus and divert any water they drank, the person would momentarily feel less thirsty after drinking water even though no water ever actually reached their system.

    I dunno, just a thought. As you say, one study means nothing, and two studies doesn't mean that much more. I could be making up apologetics for a phenomenon that's not even real.

  3. James, here's the problem, as I see it. You do something wrong, and I want to punish you to stop you doing it again. You decide to punish yourself - but how much punishment to inflict? It will either be (A) less than I would inflict, or (B) equal to or greater than I would inflict.

    If A, then I won't be satisfied, because I don't see it as a strong enough deterrent. If B, then why do it? You might as well not punish yourself - you don't gain from it and, you never know, you might be able to dodge punishment all together.

    Now, it seems reasonable that people in this study were punishing themselves because they felt guilty. But do really see that it can be an effective signal of anything. There must be some other reason for it.

  4. Interesting. Could there be an argument made that self-punishment is perceived as being "worth more" than punishment imposed by others? In that case, it would potentially be to my advantage to self punish, because you might be satisfied with a lesser amount of punishment than if you doled it out yourself. Let X be the nominal amount of external punishment, p be the probability of being caught, and Y being the minimum acceptable amount of self-punishment. If Y < p*X, then it would be to my advantage to self-punish rather than risk the full punishment.

    Of course that all rests on Y < X, which it sounds like you are rejecting. I have no idea what evolutionary reason there would be for Y < X, but just looking at human societies, there seems to be some precedent. I don't think the reason people who plead Guilty are given lesser sentences is simply because it saves on court costs (actually, I know this is so, because if you get a traffic ticket and mail it in, thereby minimizing court costs, you get the full fine; but if you show up and plead guilty, you get a reduced fine). And we certainly seem to reserve our maximum vitriol for those who deny their crime to the bitter end, as opposed to those who are willing to come clean right away.

    Like I say, though, I have no idea what the evolutionary reason for this would be.

  5. Great site.
    One correction-- Psychological Science used to be a flagship journal of the American Psychological Society (APS). With a nod to the global reach of psychological research, the organization has change its name to the Association for Psychological Science (APS).

  6. Huh. This could help explain why people engage in self-harming behaviors such as cutting. I know I always felt better after a good few slices... and I have the scars to prove it.

  7. James, one other possibility is that there might be some advantage to the offended party if the offender self punishes. Maybe I won't run the risk of being injured by you, or by your 'gang'.

    It might be safer for me to accept a lower level of self-inflicted punishment.


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