Guilt as Motivator

Why is One of the Least Effective Motivational Tools Still One of the Most Popular

Image for post
Image for post

There are many ways to convince someone to do something or not do something. You can ask politely, gently plead, beg, demand, threaten, tempt, among many others. Finally, of course, you can use guilt, possibly the oldest (see Book of Genesis story of Adam & Eve for several excellent examples), and arguably the least effective means of getting another person or group of persons to do the thing or things which you would like them to do, or stop doing the thing or things you would like them to stop doing. Why do we constantly do this? Why do seemingly rationale and sane individuals, many of whom our are very own friends and family, play the guilt card so often when attempting to convince us to do something (or not), especially when many times there are plenty of other options such as some of the ones listed above that would seem to be available as better choices? First though a clarification. Saying that guilt is not an “effective” motivational tool is not the same thing as saying it does not work. In point of fact it often does, maybe even more often than not, and for particularly recalcitrant individuals a good ‘ol dose of vitamin G will often ‘convince’ when all other methods failed. This is one of the reasons why people use it so often, because guilt does work. Unfortunately the long term costs to our relationships are so high that they easily outweighs any short or medium term benefits that might be obtained from bending the individual to our will through guilt. Guilt is toxic for a host of reasons but for one, once deployed, it can’t be taken back, not really, not ever. If I try to get my sister to come home for Christmas by piling on guilt e.g. by mentioning how she missed Christmas the past three years and it really made mom and dad sad, I can’t then just apologize by saying I didn’t mean what I said. What I said was true, she knows it, I know it. The damage was done the second those words left my mouth and I can’t shove them back in there no matter how much I might want to. When it comes to guilt, the damage done is insidious, non obvious, and builds over time. It is only sometimes obvious to the guilter that the guiltee has been hurt in any way by the guilt dispensed. Guilt often hurts sure, but usually not in an outwardly tangible fashion. In other words it usually doesn’t make you cry (not right away at least) or cringe or turn and run away, if it did it would not be guilt but rather attack or cut down or some more directly confrontational approach. The ‘best’ guilt is the kind that shows no visible wounds (at first) and leaves no visible scars (though they will form and they will scab over). It winds its way into the guiltee’s brain where it finds a place to hunker down for the long haul, ready to pop out without warning to ruin their self confidence or happiness or whatever good thing they may be feeling. And it will do this over and over and over and over again until the guiltee either forgets about the guilt (rarely) or comes to terms with it by realizing it is something for which they should not feel guilty, or by forgiving themselves for whatever offense they may have committed (very rarely). The only way I have found to fight back against the constant guilt assault is to refuse to play the game. Simply tell the person trying to guilt you about something for any reason that “I do not accept guilt as a motivation and will not do (fill in blank) for that reason so you can stop now..” The trick here is you need to say this every single time, in every situation, no matter if the thing about which you are being guilted is legitimate, illegitimate, trivial or highly consequential. No matter what you cannot acknowledge the validity of guilt as a motivator to action, and you must always point it out when it happens and opt out of the game. Of course this is very easy to say but the next time your mom starts laying on the guilt about not talking to your sister enough on the phone try to actually say it, to your mom, out loud. At first the reactions you will get to this approach are incredulity or denial. The guilter will always claim that is not what they were doing. However, if you are consistent with this eventually your friends and family will come to understand, and they will stop trying to guilt you about anything…mostly. lol!

Written by

Research scientist (Ph.D. micro/mol biology), Thought middle manager, Everyday junglist, Selecta (Ret.), Boulderer, Cat lover, Fish hater

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store