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 original source of their guilt.

“Feeling guilty about missing a work commitment could, for instance, motivate you to apply for a gym membership – 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 guilt’s prevalence in our daily lives, he added the findings could have broader implications by illuminating the silver lining of negative emotions. “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.

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