PLoS ONE (Jan 2013)

The weight of a guilty conscience: subjective body weight as an embodiment of guilt.

  • Martin V Day,
  • D Ramona Bobocel

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 8, no. 7
p. e69546


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Guilt is an important social and moral emotion. In addition to feeling unpleasant, guilt is metaphorically described as a "weight on one's conscience." Evidence from the field of embodied cognition suggests that abstract metaphors may be grounded in bodily experiences, but no prior research has examined the embodiment of guilt. Across four studies we examine whether i) unethical acts increase subjective experiences of weight, ii) feelings of guilt explain this effect, and iii) whether there are consequences of the weight of guilt. Studies 1-3 demonstrated that unethical acts led to more subjective body weight compared to control conditions. Studies 2 and 3 indicated that heightened feelings of guilt mediated the effect, whereas other negative emotions did not. Study 4 demonstrated a perceptual consequence. Specifically, an induction of guilt affected the perceived effort necessary to complete tasks that were physical in nature, compared to minimally physical tasks.