Guilt Appeals: the Effects of Responsibility and Altruistic Norms

Debra Z. Basil, University of Lethbridge
Nancy M. Ridgway, University of Colorado
Michael D. Basil, University of Lethbridge
ABSTRACT - Guilt appeals are commonly used by charities to motivate prosocial behavior (Huhmann & Brotherton, 1997). A modest amount of research has examined the relationship between guilt appeals and charitable donations (e.g. Bozinoff & Ghingold, 1983; Regan, 1971), but many questions remain. As noted by O’Keefe (1998), previous research regarding guilt appeals has focused primarily on the explicitness of the guilt appeal (e.g. Coulter & Pinto, 1995; Ruth & Faber, 1988). One major unanswered question relates to the process through which guilt appeals operate. This research seeks to begin clarifying the process through which guilt appeals lead to charitable donations.
[ to cite ]:
Debra Z. Basil, Nancy M. Ridgway, and Michael D. Basil (2001) ,"Guilt Appeals: the Effects of Responsibility and Altruistic Norms", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 216.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Page 216

GUILT APPEALS: THE EFFECTS OF RESPONSIBILITY AND ALTRUISTIC NORMS

Debra Z. Basil, University of Lethbridge

Nancy M. Ridgway, University of Colorado

Michael D. Basil, University of Lethbridge

ABSTRACT -

Guilt appeals are commonly used by charities to motivate prosocial behavior (Huhmann & Brotherton, 1997). A modest amount of research has examined the relationship between guilt appeals and charitable donations (e.g. Bozinoff & Ghingold, 1983; Regan, 1971), but many questions remain. As noted by O’Keefe (1998), previous research regarding guilt appeals has focused primarily on the explicitness of the guilt appeal (e.g. Coulter & Pinto, 1995; Ruth & Faber, 1988). One major unanswered question relates to the process through which guilt appeals operate. This research seeks to begin clarifying the process through which guilt appeals lead to charitable donations.

The means through which guilt facilitates helping behavior is of particular interest. Miceli (1992) proposed three essential ingredients for guilt induction. The first is responsibility. One will not feel guilty about something for which he or she does not feel in some way responsible. Responsibility may stem from causing something to occur, or from failing to avoid the onset of some occurrence. An individual may feel guilty about failing to avert some negative situation for others if he or she does not make the needed financial contribution. The second requisite for guilt is that the action or lack thereof causes harm. Failing to make a charitable donation may lead to a lack of food or other necessities for other people, which would cause harm. The third requisite for guilt is that one’s personal moral standards are violated.

Miceli (1992), and Miceli and Castelfranchi (1998) focused on interpersonal guilt induction in their proposed guilt framework (i.e., one on one interactions). The present research adapts their framework to guilt appeals for charitable donations. Based on their propositions, if one feels guilt, then he or she must feel some sense of responsibility for the situation (responsibility either to act or not to act in some manner). It would seem, then, that successful guilt appeals should operate by inducing a sense of responsibility to help. A sense of responsibility, in turn, should lead to larger charitable donations.

Two laboratory experiments were conducted to test this. Study one demonstrated that guilt appeals engender a relatively stronger sense of responsibility to help the less fortunate, compared to a control appeal. This study also demonstrated that a stronger sense of responsibility increases an individual’s intention to make a charitable donation. A variety of guilt advertisements (nine) were used in this study, to assure that the results were not dependent upon the wording of a specific advertisement. These results should therefore be generalizable to a wide variety of guilt advertisements for charity.

The results of study two demonstrated that the effect of guilt appeals on charitable donations depends upon both a sense of responsibility and the activation of altruistic norms. When others are present, altruistic norms are activated to a greater extent, and individuals have a stronger desire to act altruistically (compared to when others are not present). The presence of others also interacts with a strong sense of responsibility such that when both are present individuals give even larger charitable donations.

The results of these studies provide initial insight into the process through which guilt appeals generate donations. An important element in generating charitable donations through the use of guilt appeals appears to be instilling a sense of responsibility to help. These results suggest that advertisers who choose to use guilt appeals should test not just the level of guilt that the appeal induces, but also the level of responsibility the appeal instills. Additionally, these results demonstrated that activation of altruistic norms can be an important factor in the functioning of guilt appeals. As such, guilt advertisements that successfully induce a sense of responsibility and activate altruistic norms should be more effective than those that do not.

REFERENCES

Bozinoff, Lorne and Morry Ghingold (1983). Evaluating Guilt Arousing Marketing Communications. Journal of Business Research, 11, 243-255.

Coulter, Robin H. and Mary B. Pinto (1995), "Guilt Appeals in Advertising: What Are Their Effects?" Journal of Applied Psychology, 80(6), 697-705.

Huhmann, Bruce A. and Timothy P. Brotherton (1997), "A Content Analysis of Guilt Appeals in Popular Magazine Advertisements," The Journal of Advertising, 26(2), 35-45.

Miceli, Maria (1992), "How To Make Someone Feel Guilty: Strategies of Guilt Inducement and Their Goals," Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 22(1), 81-104.

Miceli, Maria and Cristiano Castelfranchi (1998), "How to Silence One’s Conscience: Cognitive Defenses Against the Feeling of Guilt," Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 28, 287-318.

O’Keefe, Daniel J. (2000), "Guilt and Social Influence," in M.E. Roloff (ed.) Communication Yearkbook, 23, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Regan, Judith W. (1971), "Guilt, Perceived Injustice, and Altruistic Behavior," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18 (April), 124-132.

Ruth, Julie A. and Ronald J. Faber (1988), "Guilt: An Overlooked Advertising Appeal," Proceedings of the 1988 Conference of the American Academy of Advertising, John D. Leckenby, ed., Austin, TX: American Academy of Advertising, 83-89.

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