Guilty Pleasures

Guilty Pleasures Definition

Guilty PleasuresGuilty pleasures are activities with short-term payoffs that are positive for a person but with long-term negative consequences. For example, reading a trashy magazine can be rewarding in the short term because it is fun, but it can be more negative in the long term if your friends think less of you for enjoying it. Other commonly listed guilty pleasures are eating tasty but unhealthy foods and partying even though it interferes with work.

Usage and History of Guilty Pleasures

Dilemmas of self-control often present a contrast between immediate payoffs and delayed payoffs. According to Roger Giner-Sorolla, these dilemmas can be described either as delayed cost (guilty pleasure) or delayed benefit (grim necessity). His studies have shown that people associate different emotions with different types of consequences. In particular, when participants were asked for examples of activities with more positive short-term than long-term consequences, these guilty pleasures brought up negative emotions that tended to be more self-conscious. That is, they dealt with evaluating the self and one’s own actions, for example, “guilty” and “regretful.”

However, the positive emotions they came up with for these activities tended to be more hedonic, or concerned with immediate pleasure in the activity; for example, “fun” and “happy.” Other studies showed that for guilty pleasures in particular, self-conscious emotions that were more quickly reported went together with greater self-control. In fact, when dieters in an eating situation were subtly reminded of negative self-conscious words, they ate lower amounts of unhealthy snacks.

The point is that emotions can help or hurt self-control, depending on whether they are of the kind that deal with short- or long-term consequences. It is particularly helpful to anticipate self-conscious emotional consequences before they occur. Bad feelings do no good if they come after an act, unless a person learns that future bad feelings will happen if they do the act again. In fact, anticipated regret can be an important factor in decision making.

For example, male students in one experiment were told to think about how they would feel after sex without using a condom, as opposed to during sex. Those who thought about “after” feelings reported greater intention to use condoms and greater actual use, even weeks after the experiment. Not surprisingly, participants reported anticipating “after” emotions that were negative and tended to be self-conscious—guilt, worry, and so on— while emotions in the “during” condition were more positive.


  1. Cross, J., & Guyer, M. (1980). Social traps. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  2. Giner-Sorolla, R. (2001). Guilty pleasures and grim necessities: Affective attitudes in dilemmas of self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(2), 206-221.
  3. Richard, R., de Vries, N. K., & van der Pligt, J. (1998). Anticipated regret and precautionary sexual behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28(15), 1411-1428.