A short course in guilt.
October 11, 2006 9:47 AM   Subscribe

What are some easy/common ways to make a stranger feel guilty?

Have researchers studied what things make people feel guilty? Apart from an emotional relationship with another person, what specific sorts of stimuli are most effective at making people feel guilt? I've tried searching the scholarly journal databases on "guilt," but all I seem to turn up is either guilt in a personal relationship context, guilt in the eyes of the law, and self guilt. And those things tend to be extremely dense and not written for a guy like me What I am trying to find are social mechanisms could produce guilt in strangers during the natural progression of a "get to know each other" conversation. I'm not really interested in the "I have cancer / my dog just died" types of ruses.

No responses addressing any applicable ethical issues, please; I have considered those already and they are not part of the problem I seek to solve.
posted by the giant pill to Human Relations (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you are seeking to set up an experiment, then I'd say have someone consume, use-up or throw away an object that seemed to have no owner, and then confront them with the owner who was strongly attached to the object in some way.
posted by saffry at 10:03 AM on October 11, 2006

A good target for this would be a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream in a communal fridge monitored by a hidden camera.
posted by The Confessor at 10:05 AM on October 11, 2006

Guilt often arises due to regret about actions or assumptions. The most common quick interaction among strangers is when A has made some assumptions about B which turn out to be mistaken.

I am sure most people have been at one or both ends of this retails store interaction:

A: Excuse me....can you show me where the dressing rooms are..
B: I'm sorry. I dont work here.
A: Oh. Sorry.

A feels guilt because they have made a mistaken assumption - confusing another customer for staff. This also happens when, for example, someone approaches us on the street who we think is going to ask us for money, but turns out to be merely a tourist asking for help - and who is gracious about the help they got.
posted by vacapinta at 10:09 AM on October 11, 2006

The only way to make somebody feel guilty is to make them feel like they've made an error of behavior or etiquette. If you take out Sympathy Guilt (My mom is great! Oh, that's nice, my mom is dead.), you're going to have a hard time making a stranger feel bad unless they offer up something you can deliberately use against them.

For example, they brag that a cashier undercharged them for something, which gives you the opportunity to say, wistfully, "I hope they don't take that out of her check; they used to when I worked a register." In other words, wait for them to confess an ethical misdeed and passive-agressively call them on it.
posted by headspace at 10:12 AM on October 11, 2006

Maybe you should explain what you mean by guilt.

I have cancer / my dog just died" types of ruses would probably make strangers feel sympathy or empathy, not really guilt.

And I think the first scenario put forth by vacapinta is more of an embarassment emotion than guilt.

But, maybe I have weird ideas about what comprises guilt and what guilt means.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:15 AM on October 11, 2006

Response by poster: Guilt: 2b
posted by the giant pill at 10:23 AM on October 11, 2006

The first thing that came to my mind was to pretend like they hurt you.

However, this will not work everywhere, e.g., New York.
posted by milarepa at 10:24 AM on October 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

As an elaboration to vacapinta's confused customer scenario, I've actually unintentionally provoked this sort of reaction on a number of occasions. Wearing a tie and walking like you're busy or in a hurry seems to make customers assume you're a manager in some stores, and wearing a solid red shirt (a decent looking long-sleeved t-shirt in my case) and some decent-looking pants to Target tends to make you blend in with the staff more than I like.

I suppose that by dressing the part, particularly the manager 'costume' in a busy store, one could bait customers who are already upset and unable to find help. They might be a little more likely to unload or vent, thinking you're somehow responsible, but I found rude, angry customers unpleasant enough to deal with when I was actually working in retail - the thought of actually bringing such confrontation onto myself sounds about as pleasant as licking my toilet brush.
posted by RobotMonkey at 11:32 AM on October 11, 2006 [2 favorites]

Guilt is based on action and its concequences. And even a short, innocuous conversation is a form of relationship. This is why "I have cancer and/or My dog just died" works so well. A seemingly innocuous opener -- "How's your mom?"-- induces guilt with the response, "She's dead." You've immediately done something wrong to another person, and you feel shame (which is the kind of guilt you're talking about -- but that's a different conversation).

The only way to make a true stranger feel guilty is to put a sign that, odds are, will induce some kind of guilt in pretty much everyone who reads it -- e.g., "every time you masturbate, a puppy dies."
posted by turducken at 11:34 AM on October 11, 2006

Could you clarify specifically what problem you are trying solve ? Or at least an example of what you are looking for? That might help people focus their answers or at least prevent your question from getting deleted again.
posted by justkevin at 11:42 AM on October 11, 2006

Agreed; I don't quite see what you're driving at here.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:50 AM on October 11, 2006

If you honk at someone from your car it has a tendency to make a certain kind of person feel that he or she has done something wrong.

I think an important consideration when tackling this question is the broad spectrum of personality and reaction. A stimulus that might elicit strong feelings of guilt in one person might cause someone else to react with anger.
posted by yogurtisgenocide at 11:51 AM on October 11, 2006

"Are you staring at my [insert body part(s)]?"

That could make a stranger feel guilty in a meeting situation. So could a suggestion of breach of etiquette in dress, but probably not as universally.

One that might be applicable in academic contexts. Someone introduces him/herself as Professor So-and-So or Dr. So-and-So. A quick, "I'm [name]. I don't ask other people to call me Dr. [name]." You'll get guilt -- probably some hostility too.
posted by ontic at 11:54 AM on October 11, 2006

I agree that now that some folks have tried to answer your question, it might be fruitful to comment on whether people are on the right track or not and elucidate if appropriate - rather than just linking to a dictionary definition.
posted by vacapinta at 12:26 PM on October 11, 2006

I once asked a stranger in a checkout line when her baby was due. Turns out she wasn't pregnant, just overweight. I think my question made her feel quilty about being overweight.
posted by LadyBonita at 1:00 PM on October 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Does it count if you mention the newly calculated death toll for the Iraq war and I feel guilty because I supported it? Or if you happen to mention some volunteering that you are doing and I feel bad because I'm not doing any right now? Or if you mention that you are vegetarian and I feel bad because I'm not and I know that vegetarianism is better for the planet? Or does the guilt have to happen from something I've said in the course of the conversation?

Anyway, if the above are fine, I would say that one of the best ways to make a stranger feel guilty is to remind them of something they have a low level of underlying guilt about already, particularly if you do it in a way that makes it seem as though they could have made another choice. In the volunteering example, I might have been thinking to myself that nobody as busy as me would have time to volunteer, but if you tell me that you do it and I know that you work in the same job as me, that challenges my justification for my behavior and I might feel bad about a position that I was OK with before.
posted by teleskiving at 1:46 PM on October 11, 2006

Guilt is something that manifests in the person who feels guilty. I don't think you can necessarily 'make someone feel guilty'.. rather you can just push buttons that tend to work on some people.

I spend most of my life feeling guilty so I feel qualified to say this. I feel guilty when I'm in someone's way in the grocery store, I feel guilty when I'm taking too long to turn out of a junction, I feel guilty if I'm talking too loudly in a public place. But I realize this is all my problem and that we all have different levels of guilt.
posted by wackybrit at 1:56 PM on October 11, 2006

I still think most of the examples above are embarassment, not guilt, with the exception of teleskiving's point about the war. With strangers, we're talking about definition 3 in the OPs link, "a feeling of culpability for offenses."

So, the best way to make a stranger feel guilty is probably to underhandedly maneuver yourself into a situtation where the stranger causes you some sort of pain.
posted by desuetude at 2:16 PM on October 11, 2006

LadyBonita: "I once asked a stranger in a checkout line when her baby was due. Turns out she wasn't pregnant, just overweight. I think my question made her feel quilty about being overweight."

No, it wouldn't be guilt. It would be shame, embarrassment & insecurity. Probably a good dash of dislike directed at you, as well.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 3:33 PM on October 11, 2006

I think desuetude's got it -- most of these seem like embarrassment. What you need is to make them think that they've hurt you somehow. Can you trick them into thinking they've brought up a subject that's painful to you?
posted by myeviltwin at 3:52 PM on October 11, 2006

Meep! Eek!: "No, it wouldn't be guilt. It would be shame, embarrassment & insecurity. Probably a good dash of dislike directed at you, as well."

Probably she felt all those things AND guilt. Don't overweight people feel guilty for not taking care of their bodies? For not eating right or exercising enough? But agreed, embarassment was probably her overwhelming feeling, as it was mine.
posted by LadyBonita at 4:22 PM on October 11, 2006

Limp away—while shooting a pointed look, of course—when someone doesn't offer you his/her seat on the train?
posted by LDL_Plackenfatz at 4:47 PM on October 11, 2006

LDL, I am sorry to say that a mere limp wouldn't cut it on most trains in Chicago. Crutches, canes, even blind people get no sympathy from many commuters. Maybe one out of the 8 people nearest the doors will get up. MAYBE.
posted by MrZero at 5:37 PM on October 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

From your link: feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy.

Since you're targeting strangers, I'd guess your best bet is to show yourself doing something selfless and good in a way that makes others feel bad for not doing the same. Either that, or force them to make an offensive assumption.

(example: once, at a bar, I saw a guy, didn't look a day over fifteen, sitting at the other end of a bar drinking a beer. So I got the attention of the very pretty bartender and told her, "I don't want to tell you how to do your job, but there's a teenage guy drinking a beer over there." The bartender looks at me and says, "that's my girlfriend." Ouch)

But are you trying to inspire guilt in a way you can measure?
posted by Bookhouse at 5:49 PM on October 11, 2006

It might be possible to make people feel guilty using some sort of NLP mojo. Better still, use subtle slight of hand to apply trans-cranial electromagnets to their head. These can have remarkable effects on the brain.
posted by econous at 5:52 PM on October 11, 2006

LadyBonita: " Probably she felt all those things AND guilt. Don't overweight people feel guilty for not taking care of their bodies? For not eating right or exercising enough? But agreed, embarassment was probably her overwhelming feeling, as it was mine."

I think that would depend on the person, and how much they felt that they had the right to control their own behavior and health. It's much like many/most smokers or the anorexic, who seem to believe that if it's their bodies, they can do what they like to them.

I think somehow getting someone to step on your foot and announcing "ouch!" would probably work well. Most people feel guilty for physically hurting other people. Especially strangers.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 6:22 PM on October 11, 2006

Response by poster: MeTa
posted by the giant pill at 7:34 PM on October 11, 2006

There are obviously two kinds of guilt, and therefore (I think) at least two different species of guilty feelings. The first kind of guilt is external. When one has acted (or failed to act) in a way that is contrary to a code (whether moral, legal or both, I'm not sure it makes any difference) that is created, adhered to, and/or imposed by one ore more people beside one'sself. The feelings arising from this category of guilt range from embarressment to rage, but each probably arises from an imposed "otherness". In other words, there are certain emotional resposes which are triggered when we perceive that we have been judged, and this emotional response will probably vary in kind and intensity depending on the degree to which we feel (or felt) a unity with the individual or group that now stands in judgement.

If we are referring to, or at least including, these types of guilty feelings in our inquiry, then to make someone feel guilty one must only pass judgement in such a way (it need not be verbal) so as to alert the individual to the judgement. The effectiveness of this tack will depend on the degree to which the individual relates to the judge. Typically, if the individual is a complete stranger, this can be most effectively accomplished if the individual perceives that he or she has been judged by a group or someone speaking on behalf of a group, rather than by a single person.

Perhaps the more interesting species of guilt (and the corresponding resultant "guilty feelings") is internal guilt. this occurs when one perceives that they have acted (or, again, failed to act) in a way that is incompatable with ones own sense of morality. In this way, internal guilt is really nothing more than a subspecies of cognitive dissinence. Although external and internal guilt are far from being mutually exclusive (indeed, they often coincide) they are in no way dependant on each other (Unless you beleive that individual morality is only the internalization of societal mores. . .more on that in a bit)

If we are conceptually limiting guilty feelings to this category of guilt, then the search for a universal "guilt trigger" pressupposes the existence of a universal morality, which more than a few would consider a dubious proposition. Nonetheless, there are certainly some who do believe in a universal morality, either because they believe that a supreme deity has somehow instilled or otherwise bestowed a morality on every individual on the planet, or they subscribe to something akin to an apriori Kantian Categorical Imperative, or they believe that morality is merely a product of cultural conditioning, but that some elements of the human experience are so common as to give rise to a defacto universal morality.

In any event, it is clear that not all morality is universal. Therefore, when we undertake to make someone feel guilty in the internal sense, we must either have some sort of personal knowledge of that individual's own personal moral code and attack accordingly, or we must base manipulations on moral tenets that we believe to be universal, or at least so common as to to be effectively universal. I suppose, in the alternative, one who is particularly observant could use an individual's observable qualities and make assumptions about his or her internal morality, based of course on previously observed statistical correlations. I don't for sure that internal moral convictions will have reliable observable indices, but such is almost certainly the case in at least some instances.

Finally, even after we have sucessfully deduced at least one moral tenet held by the target individual, we are still faced with the task of causing the individual to perceive that they have acted contrary to that moral tenet. Again, there are several possible methods. If we have personal knowledge of, or have observed an actual moral incongruency, we can remind the individual or bring it to their attention. A second possibility is to bring up misdeeds that are so statistically common that the individual is likely to have committed the transgression. (An extremely simple example would be to mention pornography or masterbation in the presence of a teenage boy who is perceived to be a sincere Christian. . .he is statistically likely to have indulged in one or both "sins" and is also likely to be morally opposed to both. Tadah! Instant guilt) A final method would be to trick or entrap an individual into doing something (or failing to do something) that is incompatible with with the individual's moral convictions.

That's my take. I haven't really thought everything completely through, so there could easily be ommissions and/or inconsistencies in my analysis. But this should at least be a respectable framework for understanding, and therefore sucessfully manipulating, feelings of guilt.
posted by Attentiondeficit at 8:10 PM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

So you're looking for a succinct, soul-squashing suitcase bomb of a sentence that will crush the will of any random stranger? hmm. People pay good money for that sort of thing in certain circles; "Neuro-Linguistic Programming" might be of interest to you, as the impact of our words is often measured by how we deliver those words.

In order to see what works, you'll have to try it out on as large a sampling of the populace as you can manage. That way you can tinker with wording, facial expressions, etc. and put a finer point on it. Some avenues of suggestion to get started might be: "Everybody knows what you did and you should be ashamed"; "Is this the life your mother thought you'd have?/I knew your dad and you really let him down" (the family angle is a good one to work--many people have some sort of guilt associated with their families); and I wonder if the typical intarweb style your-a-looser beratement would have any effect? Do tell in a followup please, if you decide to try this.

I don't know if there's a single such phrase that would work for everyone, though. It's a dynamic process, based as much upon the signals the "stranger" shares with you as how you respond/act upon them. Besides, upon rereading the question, you seem to seek more of an "oh snap at the dinner party" kind of effect.

Personally I don't believe it's cool to use one's superpowers to make people you're hanging out with feel crummy, but any manipulative bastard who thought otherwise would steer the topic toward the usual stress points--family, relationships, work, finances, those sorts of things--and pursue whichever threads seem to be causing the most discomfort.
posted by First Post at 11:30 PM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

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