Scientists Discover a Simple Way To Reduce Feelings of Guilt

Woman Guilt Sadness Disappointment

Guilt is an emotional response that arises when an individual perceives that they have violated a moral or ethical standard. It is often accompanied by feelings of remorse, shame, and regret. While guilt can be a powerful motivator for making amends and changing behavior, excessive or prolonged guilt can lead to negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and reduced self-esteem.

Guilt is an unpleasant and overwhelming emotion, but researchers at the University of Basel have demonstrated that placebos can effectively reduce feelings of guilt, even when the placebo is administered openly.

In our interactions with others, we may not always behave in an ideal manner. When we realize that our actions have caused harm, we often experience feelings of guilt. This unpleasant feeling drives us to take corrective action, such as offering an apology or accepting responsibility.

This is why guilt is viewed as a significant moral emotion, as long as it serves an adaptive purpose meaning it is appropriate and proportional to the situation. “It can improve interpersonal relationships and is therefore valuable for social cohesion,” says Dilan Sezer, a researcher at the Division of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the University of Basel.

Whether feelings of guilt can be reduced by taking placebos is something that researchers at the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Basel have been exploring. Their findings have now been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Open-label placebos work

In order to arouse feelings of guilt, test subjects in the study were asked to write about a time when they had disregarded important rules of conduct, or treated someone close to them unfairly, hurt, or even harmed them. The idea was that the study participants should still feel bad about the chosen situation.

Participants were then randomized to three conditions: Participants in one group were given placebo pills with being deceptively told that this was a real medication while participants in another group were told that they are given a placebo. Both groups were told that what they had been given will be effective against feelings of guilt. The control group was given no treatment at all. The results showed that feelings of guilt were significantly reduced in both placebo groups compared with those without medication.

This was also the case when the subjects knew they had been given a placebo. “Our study, therefore, supports the intriguing finding that placebos work even when they are administered openly, and that explanation of the treatment is key to its effectiveness,” states the study’s lead author, Dilan Sezer. Participants in this study were all healthy, had no psychiatric disorders, and were not being treated with psychotropics.

Clinical applicability not yet proven

Where feelings of guilt are irrational and continue for longer periods of time, they are considered maladaptive – in other words, disproportionate. These emotions can affect people’s health and are also, among other things, a common symptom of depression.

Scientific studies have shown that placebo effects can be powerful in treating depression. But the finding that open-label placebos can also be useful for such strong emotions as guilt is new. It stands to reason, says Dilan Sezer, that we should try to harness these effects to help those affected. “The administering of open-label placebos, in particular, is a promising approach, as it preserves patient autonomy by allowing patients to be fully aware of how the intervention works.” The results of the study are an initial promising step in the direction of symptom-specific and more ethical treatments for psychological complaints using open-label placebos, Sezer continues.

Further research will need to be done into whether it is possible to treat maladaptive guilt with placebos. And it is still not known whether similar effects are also possible with other feeling states. For Dilan Sezer, one thing is certain: “Using open-label placebos would be an inexpensive and straightforward treatment option for many psychological and physical complaints.”

Reference: “Deceptive and open-label placebo effects in experimentally induced guilt: a randomized controlled trial in healthy subjects” by Dilan Sezer, Cosima Locher and Jens Gaab, 8 December 2022, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-25446-1

7 Comments on "Scientists Discover a Simple Way To Reduce Feelings of Guilt"

  1. As soon as big Pharma gets the ok from the FDA, placebos will be prescribed for everything and priced accordingly.

  2. Rowland Stevens | February 19, 2023 at 6:36 am | Reply

    Stop this irrational thinking please. Guilt is a word that means a feeling of responsibility for something that is ASSUMED TO BE UNJUSTIFIED. So the challenge has nothing to do with GUILT at least it better not. We don’t want to suspend our feelings of “responsibility”.

    For example, you can get rid of your feeling of “guilt” any time you want….just get drunk!

    So what? the question is do these drugs get rid of “unjustified ONLY feelings of responsibility? Nothing in the article, says the “JUST GET RID OF “UNJUSTIFIED” FEELINGS. HOW COULD ANY DRUG KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEESE TWO TYPES OF RESPONSIBILITY?

    THE FACT IS, the feelings of unjustified responsibility arise, most likely for reasons that have nothing to do with the subject at hand, but why are they adding to the decision on what to be responsible for…. some irrelevant factor. so how does a drug determine what is relevant and what is not. which is, I suggest the Job description at hand. It has nothing to do with the end result of unjustified assumption of responsibility simply by saying it does away with determining responsibility whether whether justified or not. it works of course if you only deal with cases that are unjustified ahead of time. then there is no problem. But so does getting drunk, if you have no need to only get rid of the unjustified ones! Geeze!

  3. It is very simple, to give someone a pill regardless of what it is. Actually, the fact that they knew they were given a placebo knowingly proves my point. The key is that they were told that it will help them. By doing that you just gave them permission to not feel guilty anymore which for the person feeling guilty is a huge relief. in other words, we normal humans believe that feeling guilty is our penance for what we did. But now I can stop feeling guilty and blame it on the pill.

  4. You’ll soon feel guilty for leaving a comment like that.

  5. The problem with forgetting or forgiving guilt is it shuts down a necessary behaviour modification tool. You are now free to do all kinds of crazy $h*t knowing you will never be haunted by guilt. Guilt is a good thing, it ensures you don’t do the same thing again.

  6. All of you crying about how this will make people not have to deal with the ramifications for their actions. We already have those people; they’re called narcissists. Those are the people who wouldn’t change anything no matter what. This would be for people who have guilt for things that they had no control over; ex. abused children, subjects of harassment/bullying, victims of gaslighting, etc.

    If you don’t understand how this can be beneficial to many, then you are lucky to have never dealt with these. Not everyone is. So stop going on about how this will be a free for all how people to not have to take responsibility for their actions. We already have that, everywhere. And the people who your saying would abuse; they wouldn’t because they don’t feel guilt stemming from their actions.

  7. Thousands of years of spiritual/religion philosophy is where this discovery originated. this is where rituals such as the communion/ dervishes came from. The point isn’t to remove all the psychological pain of guilt, rather it is performed to put your guilt in a healthy context. Use your guilt to modify your behavior in a healthy way rather than wallowing in toxic shame as that will inevitably result in wallowing in your corruption. I learned this from a psychiatrist trained by a Catholic college.

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