How Guilt and Shame Affect Decisions

Emotions often influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. But two emotions in particular—guilt and shame—have more impact than any other, according to authors of a recent study.

But two emotions in particular—guilt and shame—have more impact than any other, according to authors of a recent study. Consumers who feel guilt tend to focus on small details, they say, while those who feel shame focus on the bigger picture.

The authors include DaHee Han of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, Canada; Adam Duhachek of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in Bloomington, and Nidhi Agrawal of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business in Seattle. They asked a group of consumers to write about a time they felt either guilt or shame, and then read an essay. Next, they could choose either to answer questions or to complete a task to demonstrate their comprehension of the essay. Most of those who had written about guilt chose to answer questions (details), while most of those who had written about shame chose the task (bigger picture).

These findings suggest that “guilt and shame activate different types of thoughts, which, in turn, color subsequent judgments and decision making,” says Duhachek. Guilt can make people more concerned with the details of a product’s function; shame can lead them to ask the bigger question of whether to make a purchase at all.

Companies might use these findings to tailor their advertisements. A gym might create an ad for a fitness class (detail) that mentions how it could help consumers allay guilt about their exercise habits, while a wellness company might craft a message that encourages people to take control of their health (big picture) by helping them overcome shame.

The study has implications for consumers as well. Those who often feel guilt might want to deliberately “contemplate the larger implications of making a decision they may later regret,” the authors write, while those who often feel shame might “pay closer attention to the details and terms of offers and contracts before making a decision.”

“When Emotions Shape Construal Level: The Case of Guilt and Shame” appeared in the December 2014 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.