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Guilt Is Contagious

Shaking hands with a cheater made study participants feel guilty themselves.

smithsonian.com

Image: KellyB

Guilt is one emotion everybody can relate to. It also happens to be one of the emotions—like happiness and sadness—that is contagious.

According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, students who were told that they were sitting in the chair of someone who cheated felt more guilt than those who were never told anything about their chair. In another part of the study, researchers had people shake hands; some were then told that they had just shaken hands with someone who had cheated. Those who shook hands with the cheaters felt more guilt than the rest.

Of course, the idea of guilt transfer isn’t totally new. Past research has noted that people dislike coming in contact with objects used by murderers or other criminals. And there’s a lot still to figure out about how and why this works. Research Digest reports:

Eskine’s team said there are lots of questions yet to be answered. For instance how might moral transfer affect the source offender? Could they come to feel progressively less guilty as they touch increasing numbers of other people? Relatedly, is it possible for “good” moral emotions to pass between people? Supporting this idea, a study published in 2011 found that using a putter they thought belonged to a famous pro led participants to putt more accurately and perceive the target hole as bigger.

The study was small, and based on college students. And Research Digest points out that the stories the subjects were told were pretty heavy handed, and some subjects may have figured out what the researchers were looking for. But it shows, at the very least, that some college students can, in fact, feel guilt.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Guilt-Free Meat-Eating Strategy: Hunt Invasive Species
Hanukkah Gelt, and Guilt

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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