Consumer Guilt: Examining the Potential of a New Marketing Construct

Dana-Nicoleta Lascu, University of South Carolina
ABSTRACT - A negative emotion frequently employed by marketing practitioners in designing advertising appeals, yet afforded little attention in the consumer behavior literature is guilt. This paper presents a review of past research on the topic of guilt and it describes how guilt can be used in a persuasion context. It then offers a propositional inventory directed at fostering research toward the understanding of the effects of guilt as a message variable on the target consumer.
[ to cite ]:
Dana-Nicoleta Lascu (1991) ,"Consumer Guilt: Examining the Potential of a New Marketing Construct", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 290-295.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 290-295


Dana-Nicoleta Lascu, University of South Carolina


A negative emotion frequently employed by marketing practitioners in designing advertising appeals, yet afforded little attention in the consumer behavior literature is guilt. This paper presents a review of past research on the topic of guilt and it describes how guilt can be used in a persuasion context. It then offers a propositional inventory directed at fostering research toward the understanding of the effects of guilt as a message variable on the target consumer.


Numerous marketing studies have demonstrated that inducing negative emotions can have desirable effects on consumers' attitude change and behavior (Ghingold 1981). These studies have focused mostly on fear and have not kept abreast with marketing practitioners' attempts to appeal to consumer anxieties in advertisements by arousing other negative emotions such as guilt, shame, or anger. A "guilt market" (Edmondson 1986) has been identified, but optimal appeals to consumer guilt have yet to be determined. The objective of this manuscript is to describe how guilt can be effectively used in a persuasion context. We define the concept of consumer guilt, review past research relevant to its psychometric properties, and conclude with a propositional inventory directed at fostering research toward the understanding of guilt as a message variable.

Guilt as a Psychological Construct

The principle of differential emotions (Izard 1977) states that there are a number of discrete emotions which can be differentiated in terms of their neurophysiological manifestations, the facial patterns they elicit, and their experiential motivational characteristics. Guilt as an affect, according to this principle, is an unlearned, fundamental emotion which took shape through evolutionary-biological processes (Izard 1977).

Guilt is a multidimensional, a posteriori, affective-cognitive concept designating both a personality disposition and an episodic emotion (Izard 1977; Mosher 1980). Guilt as a personality disposition -- the guilt trait -- has been defined by Mosher (1980, p. 602) as a "generalized expectancy for self mediated punishment for violating, anticipating violating, or failing to attain an internalized moral standard." When experienced as an emotion -- guilt state, -- guilt refers to the painful experience of regret, remorse, self blame, and self-punishment experienced upon committing or contemplating committing a transgression (Izard 1977; Mosher 1980). While guilt weighs heavily on one's mind, it also stimulates one's preoccupation with the transgression and with schemes for setting things right. Upon experiencing guilt, one also experiences the need to make retributions in order to reduce guilt to a tolerable level (Wolman 1973; Izard 1977; Ghingold 1981).

Guilt is defined differently depending on the situation in which it occurs. If experienced in response to an overt act contradicting one's moral standards, it is known as reactive guilt (Rawlings 1970). If experienced as one contemplates a transgression, it is known as reflective (Janis 1969) or anticipatory (Rawlings 1970) guilt. Guilt may also be experienced simply due to the discrepancy in well-being between oneself and others (existential guilt) (Izard 1977; Hoffman 1982; Ruth and Faber 1988). Unlike most negative emotions, guilt applies to both negative and positive outcomes. A condemnable act may have positive or a negative consequences; guilt generated by either situation will manifest itself behaviorally in the same manner (Ghingold 1981).


Based on the conceptualization of guilt discussed in the previous section, we define consumer guilt as an affect triggered by the anxiety a consumer experiences upon the cognition that he is transgressing a moral, societal, or ethical principle. The transgression can be purchasing a product, service, idea, or experience (i.e., a brand that does not abide by quality standards), or not purchasing a product Prescribed by moral, societal, or ethical principles.

Is Consumer Guilt a Valid Construct?

Ghingold and Bozinoff (1982) assessed the construct validity of guilt using the Campbell and Fiske (1959) multitrait multimethod matrix. As yet another test of construct validity, the matrix was factor analyzed and additional evidence of construct validity was provided. A similar experiment was conducted by Bozinoff and Ghingold (1983) which once again confirmed that the guilt construct had both convergent and discriminant validity.

P1 Consumer guilt is measurable, unique, and distinguishable from other emotion constructs.


The purpose of this section is to draw upon behavioral and marketing research in order to demonstrate how guilt interacts with other emotions and, as a consequence, is amplified, and how guilt will persuade or motivate consumers to engage in a desired behavior. This section will also examine the possibility of identifying market segments that will be more responsive to guilt inducement.

Guilt Interacting with Other Negative Emotional Appeals

Izard (1977) states that emotions interact with each other: one emotion may activate, amplify, or attenuate another. A frequently mentioned interaction in the behavioral literature is that between guilt and shame. Both guilt and shame create anxiety in the affected individual and both assume a fundamental orientation towards someone else. The two emotions differ in that shame stems from a goal not reached, while guilt arises from an exceeded boundary (Wicker, Payne, and Morgan 1983). Shame results from the negative judgment of others about actions not immoral in the eyes of the offender (Izard 1977).

Guilt also interacts with fear. While guilt is an a posteriori emotional response following a particular action or thought, fear is an a priori emotional response generated by anticipated consequences to particular actions or cognitions (Ghingold 1981). Feelings of guilt prompt one to atone for the offense while fear leads to avoidance or prevention of the outcome (Ghingold 1981). There are situations where the two emotions overlap: it is sometimes difficult to identify which of the two emotions is actually operating, such as, for instance, when an individual senses a fear of guilt or experiences guilt from fear (Ghingold 1981). For example, the "ring around the collar" ad represents both a fear appeal, causing one to attempt to avoid or prevent the situation, and a guilt appeal prompting one to rectify the situation (Ghingold 1981). In both situations, the goal directed behavior is the same: the launderer will avoid the ring around the collar and rectify the situation by using the appropriate detergent when the shirt is washed again.

Consumer Guilt and Persuasion

As opposed to positive appeals which stress the positive gain to the person from complying with the persuasive message, guilt, a negative appeal, raises anxiety by stressing loss if one fails to comply in order then to allay it (McGuire 1974). Since guilt as a negative emotion is an anxiety arouser, we can use the two-factor theory of anxiety, applying McGuire's (1974) information processing approach to provide guidelines for advertising practice. The theory states that the relationship between the amount of anxiety involved in the reception of a message and the effectiveness of the message in producing learning and influencing behavior involves two opposing forces. On one hand, associating guilt-induced anxiety with a message impairs attention and comprehension as it evokes responses such as withdrawal of attention and dislike of the source (cf. McGuire 1974, p.176). On the other hand, anxiety increases yielding to the message, and, as a result of the two opposing forces, the net relationship between guilt-induced anxiety and persuasive effectiveness is nonmonotonic. The effect of guilt inducement is thus, paradoxically, negative on comprehension and positive on yielding. Therefore, to maximize the I persuasive effect of the message, the level of anxiety induced should be at an intermediate level (McGuire 1974).

Mediators of Guilt Appeal Effectiveness

There are a number of individual difference variables that mediate the effectiveness of a guilt appeal; one such variable is self-esteem (Ghingold 1981). High self-esteem individuals think highly of themselves, are more likely to spend lavishly on themselves than individuals low in self-esteem, and, in general, spend more on products and services that make them feel good, such as beauty products, entertainment, and fragrances (Giges 1987). However, this very desirable market segment is not likely to be responsive to guilt appeals. Research studying the interaction between guilt and self-esteem indicates that people who rate high in self-esteem use avoidance defense mechanisms which lead them to reject threatening communications such as guilt appeals and to be more receptive to optimistic messages (Ghingold 19&1). Low self-esteem individuals, on the other hand, tend to use defenses which lead them to accept threatening appeals (Leventhal and Peru 1962).

P2 Individuals who have high self-esteem are less susceptible to guilt appeals than individuals low in self-esteem.

Another individual difference variable which mediates the effects of guilt inducement on persuasion is locus of control (Rotter 1966; Ghingold 1981). Individuals with an external locus of control, believing that external forces control one's destiny, are more likely to adhere to the recommendations contained in the advertisement prescribing modalities of reducing guilt than individuals with an internal locus of control (Ghingold 1981).

P3 Suggestions embodied in guilt appeals are more likely to be followed by individuals with an external locus of control than by individuals with an internal locus of control.

Similarly, copers, individuals who respond to stimuli of significance to them, and avoiders, individuals who avoid responding to such stimuli, react differently to persuasive appeals. Copers are more susceptible to tension-producing persuasion than avoiders (Goldstein 1959; Ghingold 1981). Ghingold (1981) indicates that copers are more likely to display susceptibility to high levels of aroused guilt. Low-guilt persuasive appeals, however, are believed to be effective when targeted at avoiders. In addition, susceptibility to guilt also affects individuals' drive to resolve guilt, and the likelihood that they will abide by the recommendations of the persuasive ad (Ghingold 1981).

P4 The higher one's susceptibility to guilt, the higher the drive to reduce guilt and the more likely it is that the consumer will follow the recommendations of the ad to reduce guilt.

P5 Consumers fitting an avoider's profile are more likely to yield to low-guilt persuasion and to follow the recommendations of a low guilt appeal ad.

P6 Consumers fitting a coper's profile are more likely to yield to high-guilt persuasion and to follow the recommendations of a high guilt appeal ad.

In the same manner, individuals who manifest a strong personality disposition of guilt -- a high "generalized expectancy for self-mediated punishment for violating, anticipating violating, or failing to attain an internalized moral standard" (Mosher 1980, p. 602) -- are more susceptible to guilt-induced persuasion and more likely to follow the recommendations of the persuasive message (Ghingold 1981).

P7 Consumers who have a strong guilt personality disposition are more susceptible to persuasive attempts inducing guilt and tend follow the recommendations of a guilt-inducing ad.

Motivation and Consumer Guilt

Tomkins' (1962) theory of differential affects considers emotions the primary motivational system in humans (Izard 1977; Mosher 1980). The motivational aspect of guilt pertains to the fact that, when one feels guilty, one also feels the urge to make some form of reparation (Hoffman 1982). As such, guilt is the principal motivational factor in the mature conscience (Izard 1977, 1979). Numerous behavioral studies attempt to demonstrate subjects' motivation to comply with requests after committing a transgression. McMillen (1971) found that compliance increases following transgression as it restores the self-esteem lost as a result of the transgression. Carlsmith and Gross (1969) show that individuals are motivated to comply with a request after transgressing, since the transgression is inconsistent with an individual's self image. By complying, he regains his self image. Carlsmith and Gross (1969) and Darlington and Macker (1966) suggest that using guilt to motivate an individual to comply is most effective when the request to comply is made by someone other than the person transgressed against.

P8 Guilt is more effective in motivating a consumer to comply with a donation or purchase request when the request is made by someone other than the individual inducing the guilt.

Variations in the level of motivation were noted in Deci's (1975) cognitive evaluation theory which describes the conditions that influence individual affect-determined motivation. He finds that motivation is decreased when an individual perceives a change in the locus of control from internal to external. If one perceives that the reason for his experiencing guilt is no longer attributed to him alone, but it is attributed externally, to factors beyond his control, his motivation to reduce guilt will decrease.

P9 A consumer's motivation to comply with a marketer's request decreases as a function of the extent to which the consumer believes that he no longer controls the situation created by the marketer to induce guilt.

Motivation is increased as an individual's feelings of competence and self-determination are increased (Deci 1975; Izard 1977). If one feels capable and is willing to undertake the reparations necessary to reduce guilt, one is more likely to be motivated to do so. Therefore, the efforts of the marketer should concentrate on reassuring the consumer that he is easily capable of making the reparation by providing immediate solutions to atoning for the transgression. In this manner, the consumer is certain that he can reduce guilt and his motivation to do so increases.

P10 A consumer's motivation to comply with a request increases as a function of the immediacy with which a marketer suggests solutions for reparations.

Consumer Guilt as a Segmentation Criterion

According to Ray and Wilkie (1970), personality-based segmentation is frequently used in marketing. Marketers need to understand how personality influences consumption; armed with such knowledge, they can use marketing strategies that will effectively appeal to target segments. Personality, as-previously discussed, plays a key role in determining one's susceptibility to guilt, the anxiety level aroused by guilt, and the likelihood that one-would follow the recommendations of the guilt inducer or of another party on how to atone for one's transgression.

A number of individual difference variables that mediate the effect of guilt inducement have been mentioned: self esteem, locus of control, the strength of an individual's personality guilt disposition, whether one is a coper or an avoider, all affect the subject's drive to reduce guilt. Although personality variables have not been used in strategic applications as frequently as, for instance, life-styles and demographics, the mentioned personality characteristics can be effectively used in segmenting markets and positioning products by identifying those groups of individuals most likely to respond in a desired manner to guilt inducement.


When a consumer is experiencing guilt, he or she is not enjoying the experience; guilt is a painful affective experience of regret, remorse, self-blame, and self-punishment (Mosher 1980). It is an emotion that individuals would attempt to avoid. A simple avoidance technique would be to tune out a guilt appeal, or, if one has been exposed to the appeal, one could simply repress the negative feelings that the guilt-inducing effort has caused to surface. Thus, even individuals susceptible to guilt inducement could show immunity to guilt in the same fashion that individuals not susceptible to guilt would. Even if they admit to guilt feelings, they may prefer not to allow themselves to be tormented by unpleasant, related thoughts.

Marketers have recently started capitalizing on the consumers' desire not to be tormented by guilt feelings by diminishing the importance of guilt. For example, an ice cream ad flashed the words "Enjoy your guilt!" on the television screen -a woman was shown as being apologetic for having finished the ice cream in a jar (Edmondson 1986). And, children, husbands, and politicians have more recently been portrayed as tactfully avoiding guilt after eating the entire content of someone else's cereal box.

What marketers are in fact telling consumers is that the guilt they experience due to overindulgence in a product should not be a cause for torment pleasure is more important than guilt. The sensory pleasure derived from the ice cream's good taste should have precedence over one's conscience and preoccupation with the transgression. Consumers seek hedonic experiences, using products to create fantasies, feelings, and fun (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982). They seek to gain pleasure through the senses (taste, in this case).

Guilt, however, could set in after the consumption takes place and end the hedonic experience, replacing it with remorse. To keep guilt in check, marketers must address it in order to diminish its impact. One method of addressing guilt is to show that it is inappropriate to experience it and that the consumer should instead focus on the pleasure afforded by the product consumption. The marketer would thus create a state of "guiltless hedonism" in the consumer who will then delight in the enjoyment or anticipation of enjoyment of the product, neither of which will be slighted by subsequent guilt.


When measuring the guilt construct, it is recommended that several methods be used, since empirical tests should not rely on a single measure (Ghingold 1981). A scale that can be used to this purpose is Izard's (1977) Differential Emotions Scale which assumes that emotions are separate and distinct and that each emotion has measurable experiential and motivational properties. The scale is a self-report instrument that measures the state or trait of emotional experiences. Affect adjectives are used to assess the emotion of guilt, among which are "guilty," "blameworthy," and "repentant" (Izard 1972, 1977). Mosher (1980) also offers an affect adjective measure of guilt using adjectives to assess a variety of affective states, one of which is guilt. Adjectives used to describe guilt are "guilty," "sinful," "blameworthy," "conscience-stricken," "repentant," and "remorseful."

The Gottschalk and Glesser (1969) measure of guilt anxiety is based on an analysis of comments on an interesting or dramatic personal life experience. It assumes that the thematic content of phrases containing adverse criticism, abuse, condemnation, moral disapproval, guilt, or threat implies the underlying presence of the guilt emotion (Mosher 1980). Otterbacher and Munz (1973) developed the Perceived Guilt Index (a state-trait measure of guilt) using the adjectives "innocent," ''pent-up, " "fretful, " "marred, " "degraded," "undisturbed, " "restrained, " "chagrined, " "reproachable," "disgraceful," and "unforgivable" to assess guilt as an affective state.

Measures of guilt as a personality disposition that are more extensively validated are Mosher's (1966, 1968) guilt inventories (Mosher 1980). Mosher uses sentence completion, true-false statements, and forced-choice inventories to measure guilt. The inventories have been reported to be high in reliability and construct validity (Mosher 1980). Ghingold (1981) suggests using attitudinal measures of guilt by appealing to one's existential guilt by arousing guilt over the plight of the world's underprivileged, requesting contributions to charity, and, subsequently, measuring the extent to which respondents experience guilt. In order to have a more precise measure of the extent to which marketing efforts are successful in inducing guilt, both the guilt trait and the guilt state should be measured before and after guilt inducement to determine the success of marketing efforts alone in inducing guilt.


The purpose of this paper was to provide a review of the behavioral and marketing literature on the subject of guilt and to argue for the use of guilt in a number of marketing situations. Considerable research shows that guilt inducement could have favorable effects in directing consumer purchase. Marketing practitioners should identify those consumers who are more susceptible to guilt -- the "guilt market" (Edmondson 1986). Upon inducing guilt, marketers should alleviate the anxiety of the guilt-exposed consumers by promptly offering atonement suggestions that would direct them to purchase the appropriate product or service. In doing so, however, marketers should exercise care and responsibility. Merely taking advantage of consumers susceptible to guilt inducement in order to turn a profit will be transparent and will most likely damage the image of the company and the advertised product or service.

The propositions offered herein, with the purpose of guiding future theory construction and empirical consumer guilt research, constitute a starting point in addressing the unlimited possibilities that this affect construct offers to marketing practitioners. Further research should be undertaken to explore the consumer guilt construct. This study relied heavily on the findings of the psychology literature on guilt. Time has come that marketing research endeavors explore the possibilities that consumer guilt offers to the field of marketing and develop a self-standing body of consumer guilt theories.


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