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New Study by Rady School Ph.D. Student and Professor Exposes Key Aspects of Guilt Dynamics and Effect on Consumer Behavior


Kristen Duke, a doctoral candidate in Marketing, and On Amir, a Professor of Marketing, from the Rady School of Management recently published a study on the main aspects of guilt and the effect of this guilt on consumer decisions and marketing strategies. The study, entitled “Guilt Dynamics: Consequences of Temporally Separating Decisions and Actions,” was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Duke and Amir find that guilt consists of decision guilt at the time of recognizing and deciding to do the act, and action guilt at the time of actually committing the deed. Their new research further explores the time gap between these two types of guilt, and the impact of this interval on the intensity of the guilty feeling. Due to the gradual decay of decision guilt as time passes, Duke and Amir discovered that a longer interval between the guilt-provoking decision and the actual action reduces the overall intensity of guilt, as well as self-control or the likelihood of compensating for negative acts.

Duke and Amir investigated the consequences of creating a distance between the guilty decision and action on consumer behavior through experiments. For example, they offered study participants a choice between a healthy snack and an unhealthy snack, but they waited for several minutes to actually provide the unhealthy snack to some of the participants. This gap between the decision and the actual action caused these participants to consume more of the indulgent snack after waiting for 15 minutes than the participants who received the unhealthy snack immediately. This seems to indicate that a gap between the guilt-inducing decision and action can increase anticipation and reduce self-control, thereby increasing the amount consumed.

Duke and Amir’s discoveries highlight the motivation behind consumer behavior trends, such as the consumption of excessive, unhealthy amounts of food or the purchase of expensive luxury items. The gap between decision guilt and action guilt could be utilized by marketers to increase sales through pre-commitment to indulgent objects. For instance, pre-payment allows consumers to initially experience the guilt, but feel significantly less guilt by the time the good or service is delivered. However, this new understanding of the complexity of guilt could also be utilized to reduce the guilty feeling in consumers by drawing attention to the dangers of pre-commitment and reduced self-control.

Additional information about this study can be found here: