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The Connection Between Physical Pain and Guilty Pleasure

2012 July 18
by Eric Horowitz

As a young child, when bodily harm was suffered due to an older sibling’s intransigence the one saving grace was often the much sought-after and much-deserved “treat.” When you’re six-years-old it’s obvious that getting punched in the arm entitles you to an ice cream sandwich. Though that may seem like the warped worldview of a small child, according to a new study it’s not far off from how adults think. When people suffer unjust bodily harm they are more likely to reward themselves with guilty pleasures:

Across two studies, the authors show that simply experiencing physical pain facilitates indulgence in guilty pleasures. This is because people feel justified in rewarding themselves when they are the victims of unfair treatment and concepts of punishment are embodied within the experience of physical pain. Study 1 demonstrates that pain leads to self-reward but only in contexts that frame the experience of pain as ‘‘unjust.’’ Study 2 shows that after pain people are more likely to self-reward with guilty pleasures (chocolate) in preference to other kinds of rewards (a pen).

One neat thing about the study is that it provides a more a detailed psychological explanation for why new gym members sometimes use their gym time to justify an increase in unhealthy behaviors. It’s not simply that they’re anchored to a certain level of health, there may actually be a direct causal link between the physical pain inflicted at the gym and the guilty pleasure of unhealthy eating. The person would first have to believe the pain was unjust, and so this may be more likely to occur when pressure to go to the gym is coming from somebody else.

Pain also doesn’t have to be physical to lead to a sense of entitlement. Past research has shown that any misfortune or unfair treatment can make a person feel entitled. I think this sheds some light on how public attitudes can swing in a non-linear manner. For example, during a recession people are unfairly fired, and that could make them feel more entitled to compensation. But there’s a recession, so even though there’s more demand for stuff, there’s less stuff to go around. As a result the whole country gets angry and holds tea party rallies and occupies Wall Street. (Ok, that last sentence may have been a bit of a causal and conceptual leap, but you get the idea.)
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Bastian, B., Jetten, J., & Stewart, E. (2012). Physical Pain and Guilty Pleasures Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612451156

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