It turns out self-flagellating medieval monks had it right (sort of): there’s nothing like good, old-fashioned, self-inflicted pain to cleanse your conscience, according to the latest research.
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, led by psychologist Brock Bastian, wanted to see whether feelings of guilt diminish with pain. To test this, they split a group of 62 volunteers into three groups and asked two of the groups to write about a scenario in which they rejected another person; the control group was asked to write about a non-guilt-ridden encounter. After assessing their guilt via a questionnaire, they had some volunteers dip their hands in warm water and others to dip their hands in ice water. Finally, the researchers assessed the subjects’ guilt levels once again, as well as their self-reported pain levels. As New Scientist reports:
Participants who had written about rejecting another left their hands in the ice bucket for longer than those who had written about a normal interaction. They also reported more pain – regardless of how long their hand was in the ice. Crucially, participants who placed their hand in ice later had less than half as much guilt, as measured by the questionnaire, as those who had put their hand in warm water.
He says that self-punishment might relieve guilt by functioning as “a signal by which a transgressor shows remorse to his or her victim when there are no other less painful means available, such as giving a bunch of flowers…. In line with this view, excessive forms of self-punishment could be perceived as a consequence of unresolved guilt,” Nelissen adds. [New Scientist]
But please, don’t go flagellating yourself the next time you feel a twinge of guilt–a simple sorry might be a better option.
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