Guilt over eating chocolate only makes it more delicious

Dec. 6, 2012 at 9:14 AM ET

Eric Risberg / AP /
By Markham Heid, Prevention


You know how this goes. You're aware that having a second doughnut is overkill, but you blissfully indulge anyway...only to regret it minutes later. So why do you keep giving in when you know you'll end up with regret later? Turns out that guilt actually enhances your sense of pleasure, finds new research.

Researchers from Northwestern, Penn State, and Yale reached that conclusion by evaluating 40 female study participants. One group of women looked at covers of health magazines, while the other scanned covers of publications unrelated to healthy living. Afterward, all the women ate a chocolate candy bar and answered questions about how much they enjoyed the treat.

Women who'd been exposed to health magazines enjoyed the chocolate 16 percent more than the other participants. Why? They were primed to feel guilty about eating an unhealthy snack, and that guilt actually increased their sense of pleasure, the study explains. The researchers also repeated the experiment with slight variations, but in each case, participants primed to feel guilty derived more enjoyment from the chocolate.

A link between guilt and pleasure might seem surprising. But we can blame our thin-obsessed culture, which labels indulgences as "sinful," for the connection, explains study author Kelly Goldsmith, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern. "If guilt and pleasure are repeatedly connected, either by others or by ourselves, over time our brains may start to expect pleasure when we experience guilt," she says.

And that could make it tough to keep indulgences in-check. Researchers didn't measure the amount of chocolate consumed, but they speculate that a heightened sense of pleasure may cause guilt-stricken people to eat more even when they know they shouldn't. 

So what's the solution? Try cutting yourself some slack: In a study published in Personality and Individual Differences, psychologists found that self-forgiveness reduces both guilt and the likelihood of repeating guilt-inducing behaviors. Give yourself the green light to indulge from time to time, and you'll feel less guilt--and less inclination to overdo it.

More from Prevention: 

Your Brain on Chocolate

Eat This, Feel That

The One Thing You Should Eat Every Day

10 Crazy Ways To Sweeten Without Sugar