Guilt helps sell self-improvement products, new study finds

September 15, 2015 by Chris Lane, University of British Columbia
Credit: Karlis Dambrans/Flickr

Guilt can be a powerful tool for motivating self-improvement, according to a new study from UBC's Sauder School of Business. Researchers found that when people feel they're "coming up short" in any area of their lives, they are more likely to desire products they think will help them become "better," such as running shoes or day planners.

"We found that guilt reminds you of times you know you could have done better, which pushes you to seek out ways to improve," said Thomas Allard, a PhD candidate at Sauder who co-authored the study with marketing professor Katherine White.

The study found that people who feel guilty are motivated to improve even in areas unrelated to the of their guilt.

"Feeling guilty about missing a work commitment could, for instance, motivate you to apply for a – because people want to find other ways to improve themselves," said Allard.

In a series of experiments, the researchers invoked feelings of guilt in the subjects through advertisements or by asking them to write about a time they felt guilty, before gauging their interest in various self-improvement products such as a fitness-tracking app or study helpers for students. They examined other negative emotions – shame, envy, sadness, and embarrassment – and found that guilt was distinct in activating the greatest desire to improve oneself.

This research could be very useful to marketers, said Allard, citing a successful execution of the tactic in a Nike ad campaign that led with the slogan, "If something is burning you up, burn it by running."

Given 's prevalence in our daily lives, he added the findings could have broader implications by illuminating the silver lining of . "We're not short on situations when we feel guilty in our lives. If we can turn that around into something positive, it could be quite powerful."

The study, "Cross-Domain Effects of Guilt on Desire for Self-Improvement Products," is published in the October 2015 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Explore further: Feeling guilty or ashamed? Think about your emotions before you shop

More information: "Cross-Domain Effects of Guilt on Desire for Self-Improvement Products." DOI:

Related Stories

After committing a crime, guilt and shame predict re-offense

February 11, 2014

Within three years of being released from jail, two out of every three inmates in the US wind up behind bars again—a problem that contributes to the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. New research suggests ...

Recommended for you

Study suggests trees are crucial to the future of our cities

March 25, 2019

The shade of a single tree can provide welcome relief from the hot summer sun. But when that single tree is part of a small forest, it creates a profound cooling effect. According to a study published today in the Proceedings ...

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...

Apple pivot led by star-packed video service

March 25, 2019

With Hollywood stars galore, Apple unveiled its streaming video plans Monday along with news and game subscription offerings as part of an effort to shift its focus to digital content and services to break free of its reliance ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.