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Guilty Pleasures Are Just Pleasures

Why do we feel bad for liking "bad" TV? Should we?

A scene from Holey Moley
Source: ABC

One of my greatest joys this fall was watching Holey Moley, a competition show that originally aired on ABC over the summer. (The full season is available on Hulu). I’ll let Brian Grubb, TV critic and Holey Moley superfan describe the show:

"It's an extreme mini-golf challenge that features very large, very elaborate holes that make your local mini-golf course look like the saddest little rinky-dink operation you’ve ever seen. It's a spectacle to the ridiculous, featuring Wipeout-style physical challenges on every hole and people in costume and just the dumbest collection of ideas and commentary and human bodies flailing through the air that you've ever seen. It is also, for my money, the nation's finest television program."

Holey Moley is self-consciously silly, ridiculous, and thoroughly dumb. It's not going to win any awards. And it's no Better Call Saul—your cool, smart friends aren't going to be talking about it.

But Holey Moley is just plain fun to watch. You could call it a guilty pleasure: something to enjoy but not proudly.

Why do we feel bad for liking certain things, and should we? Emotion research suggests that guilt may serve an important social function, but I'm not sure guilt is really doing us any favors when it comes to enjoying things like TV.

Why guilty pleasures?

First, the term "guilty pleasure" might be a misnomer. Philosophers Kris Goffin and Florian Cova note that the term tends to be associated more with "shame or embarrassment rather than with guilt itself."

But whether we feel guilt or embarrassment, why would we feel bad for enjoying some things but not others? Many psychologists believe that guilt is adaptive in that it motivates people to follow social norms. Essentially, we feel bad when we break the rules, which then prevents us from breaking the rules as often. When it comes to TV shows and other forms of art, the norms might be what is socially acceptable to like.

Goffin and Cova ran a study that found results consistent with this idea. They asked 89 online subjects to think about a work of art, like a TV show, that they felt bad about enjoying. They then rated how strongly they agreed with various statements that tested different possible reasons for why they might feel bad. For example, one statement, which read "I feel bad about enjoying this work because there is, objectively speaking, nothing good about it," tested whether subjects felt bad for liking things that were artistically bad. Another statement tested whether subjects felt bad because others might judge them: "I feel bad about enjoying this work because I’m afraid of what other people think of people who enjoy this kind of artwork."

Subjects agreed most strongly with statements related to being judged by others (mean agreement score of 4.5 on a 1-7 scale) and not living up to one’s personal ideals (mean score of 4.7). In other words, it seems that subjects felt guilty because they felt they were going against norms—either imposed by others or upon themselves—of what was "acceptable" to like.

What if everyone secretly loves Emily in Paris?

If these norms really exist, then perhaps the adaptive account of guilt applies to guilty pleasures, and the guilt people feel is pushing them away from liking things that might hurt their reputations.

But no adaptation is perfect. Even if guilt is generally adaptive, feeling guilty in a situation might not always be in our best interests. For example, the norms we think exist could be misunderstandings. Specifically, they could arise through what psychologists call pluralistic ignorance: when people endorse a norm publicly but hold a different private belief because they assume (incorrectly) that everyone else's public attitudes reflect their private beliefs.

A scene from Emily in Paris
Source: Netflix

For example, if everyone is watching and loving Netflix’s Emily in Paris but lots of people are dunking on it online, lots of people might think it's uncool to like it, even though most people love it. As a result, the "norm" that Emily in Paris is trash doesn't truly capture the majority of people's feelings. So someone might feel guilt for watching and violating the norm, but the norm is an illusion.

An end to guilty pleasures

The term "guilty pleasure" is a relatively recent invention, rarely appearing in print until the 1990s, according to Jennifer Szalai. Perhaps, as others have argued, it's time to retire it.

Aside from the fact that our guilt might be misguided in the first place, when we talk about guilty pleasures, not enough emphasis is placed on the pleasure rather than the guilt: guilty pleasures are still pleasures. Sure, when I watch Holey Moley, I don't learn anything. I don't feel enriched intellectually. But I relax and have a good time for about 40 minutes.

That’s still beneficial. And it's hard to argue that it's something I, or anyone, should feel guilty about.

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