In Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, the character Silas is a troubled man. He has a deep belief in God, an allegiance to the Catholic Church, and a capacity for violence that allows him to be used by church officials to kill people who oppose their policies. In order to help him deal with the guilt of being a murderer, Silas also inflicts pain on himself. He whips himself and fastens a metal cilice around his leg that draws blood.
This behavior works well as a literary device, but is there any reason to believe that it works? Can physical pain change your sensation of guilt?
This question was addressed in a paper in the March, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Brock Bastian, Jolanda Jetten, and Fabio Fasoli.
They made one set of participants feel guilty by having them write about a time that they rejected or socially excluded another person. A control group wrote about a typical interaction that they had with a person the previous day.
Of the people who wrote about their unethical behavior, half of them put their hand into a bucket of ice water and were asked to keep it there as long as they could. It is painful to put your hand in ice water. The other half of the people put their hands in warm water for about the same amount of time that most people kept their hands in the cold water.
The people in the control condition also put their hands in ice water.
Both before and after putting their hands in water, the groups filled out a scale to measure their mood and their current sense of guilt. They also rated how painful it was to have their hands in the water.
The people who wrote about excluding someone else held their hands in cold water longer than the people in the control condition. This finding suggests that feeling guilty increases a person's tolerance for something painful.
The pain also reduced people's feelings guilt. For everyone who wrote about doing something unethical, their feelings of guilt went down between the time it was measured immediately after writing and the time it was measured after putting their hand in water. However, the feelings of guilt went down much more for people who put their hands in cold water than for people who put their hands in warm water.
So, feeling pain seems to have reduced feelings of guilt.
Why would this happen?
The authors of this paper suggest that there is some kind of association between pain and purification that helps to reduce guilt. On this view, people are punishing themselves and that is releasing the guilt.
I don't think this is the right explanation, though.
How do you know that you are feeling guilty? Even though guilt is an emotional state, it creates real physical stress and pain. You interpret that stress and pain as guilt, because you are having thoughts about your own bad behavior. You link those thoughts to the pain.
When you immerse your hand in cold water, you also experience pain. It is quite clear that the pain you are feeling is being caused by the cold water.
After causing yourself pain in this way, you now have an external physical explanation for pain you are feeling. As a result, you do not have to explain your pain through your thoughts about your past actions. So, you don't feel as guilty.
Ultimately, physical pain is not such a great way to remove guilt. The physical pain that you cause yourself is generally temporary. If you are feeling guilty, then the thoughts about your past actions are likely to return. Poor Silas in the Da Vinci Code had to keep torturing himself. It is far better to find a way to apologize or make amends for your wrongs than to try to reduce their influence through pain.
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