Anyone who has felt guilty—and only psychopaths haven’t—knows what the emotion feels like. It’s heavy. It “weighs on our conscience.” It’s a burden we carry around.
New research published in the journal PLOS One suggests that there’s something to those metaphors. In the study, two researchers, Martin V. Day of Princeton and D. Ramona Bobocel of the University of Waterloo, asked subjects to remember unethical and ethical things they had done. Then they had the subjects say how heavy or light they felt. Specifically they asked them “Compared to your average weight, how much do you feel you weigh right now?” on a scale of 1 to 11. People who were asked to recall past transgressions actually felt heavier than those who recalled an ethical act—or the control group of those who weren’t asked to recall anything at all. The authors argue that the extra perceived weight is the weight of guilt. (All three groups of respondents tended to report feeling heavier than usual, a fact the authors don’t try to explain.)