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I Am Forever in Your Debt — And I Mean Forever

Excessive atonement can result from inextinguishable guilt, report two researchers who have named the effect after a perpetually apologetic character from the Harry Potter series.

Guilt makes people perform a wide range of tasks to make up for their transgressions.

Men buy their wives flowers after forgetting an anniversary. Companies buy carbon credits to assuage environmental pollution. States give financial compensation to wrongly convicted citizens. Even AIG executives return million-dollar retention bonuses after being pummeled with negative press.

Despite the uncomfortable sucker-punch feeling it induces in one's stomach, psychology and emotion researchers generally view guilt as a positive social behavior. It prompts the transgressor to compensate for their actions by restoring severed social bonds and mending any distress caused by the action. The anticipation of guilt feelings may even prompt individuals to avoid being harmful in the first place.

But what happens when a person is unable to repair the damage — financial, emotional, physical or otherwise — they have inflicted upon others?

According to research recently published in the journal Emotion, when the ability to compensate for an offense is not possible, a person is more likely to inflict punishment on themselves.  

In the study, Tilburg University researchers Rob Nelissen, a social psychology doctoral student, and Marcel Zeelenberg, professor of social and economic psychology, refer to this phenomenon as the "Dobby Effect" — named for the lovable but perturbing character from the Harry Potter series.

Introduced to Potter fans in Chamber of Secrets, the second installment of J.K.Rowling's series on the boy wizard, Dobby was a house elf who often appeared at inopportune moments for the title character and tended to self-induce severe punishments, such as ironing his own hands, whenever he defied his master's wishes.

"I got the idea for (this study) after a very bad breakup for which, I'm afraid to admit, I was largely responsible myself," says Nelissen, "I won't go into details, and I did not put my ears in the oven door like Dobby did, but essentially that experience put me on track of this research."

In two separate experiments, Nelissen and Zeelenberg were able to show that when a compensation outlet is not available, guilt causes people to either deny themselves a pleasure activity or subject themselves to a penalty.

In the first experiment, the researchers asked participants to imagine they had just failed a fall semester final exam as senior undergraduate and would have to retake the course either in the spring or the following year (which would cost their parents unforeseen tuition money). Those who failed the test because they "did not study" and could only retake the course the following year indicated they were much less likely to want to join their friends on a winter ski trip than those who could take the course in the spring.

In the second experiment, individuals played a computer game where correct answers earned points for a fellow participant (a computer) who supposedly was doing the same in return. When the game was rigged such that the real participant only earned 20 points compared to their partner's 80 points, they were more likely to impose a high deduction score upon their own wrong answers in the subsequent round. Thus, when given no opportunity to make up for the low scores they obtained for their "partner," individuals were more likely to punish themselves.

"We revealed the existence of a Dobby Effect by showing that guilty people punish themselves if they have no opportunity to compensate for the transgression that caused them to feel guilty," Nelissen and Zeelenberg said in the article. "Self-punishment did not occur if people had an opportunity for compensating the victim of their transgression."

Despite cultural differences in the world, Nelissen believes the Dobby Effect is a universal reaction to guilt.

"There are large cultural differences in what people feel guilty about, for these things are primarily determined by existing social norms," he said in an interview. "Nevertheless, once feelings of guilt are elicited, people's objectives are fairly identical and all revolve around the aim to make up for what they did wrong. The belief that penitence can wash away sins is present in virtually any culture. Think about the ascesis principle in ancient Greece, the (penance) concept in the Roman Catholic tradition, harakiri in feudal Japan, and so on."