SAN FRANCISCO -- Want to send somebody on a lasting guilt trip?
Bring up their dastardly deed by offering forgiveness. Say it's not their fault. Assure them there's no need to make up for it. Make your point before they get a chance to reply. And it'll probably help if they don't quite believe you.
That's a good bet for producing long-lasting guilt, at least in people who think they deserve to feel guilty, new studies suggest.
But there's a risk to this approach: It can damage your relationship with the transgressor more than if you'd essentially said, "Hey! You goofed," according to researcher Tamara Ferguson of Utah State University.
She spoke Friday in a seminar on guilt and shame at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting.
Guilt is "a major factor that regulates people's behavior," said Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University. He and others at the seminar said guilt can be a good thing when it equalizes an imbalance of power in a relationship and helps people follow rules and expectations of society and loved ones.
In fact, guilt and shame probably evolved in human history to help maintain social bonds that kept ancestors from becoming some predator's meal on the savannah, suggested Mark Leary, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University.
But guilt that's chronic, frequent or inappropriate can be harmful by making people ashamed of themselves rather than keeping them in line, Ferguson said.
She presented results from studies of 384 college students who were asked to recall instances when somebody made them feel guilty. She wanted to know whether the method of creating this guilt trip affected how long the guilt lasted.
She checked on three categories of technique. One involved direct assertions, like saying "That's not fair!" or "Do you know what you've done?" A second included indirect ploys, like giving hints through tone of voice. The third was introducing the topic with apparent kindness: "It's all right, I forgive you ... It's not your fault ... You don't need to make it up to me."
When the students reported an incident that produced lingering guilt, the guilt trip was usually delivered through the kindness category. When they reported incidents of briefer guilt, it usually followed a direct technique.
The students' relationships with the guilt-tripper deteriorated more often when the guilt was lingering -- lasting more than a week -- rather than briefer.
So when is the right time to offer forgiveness?
It depends on what you want to do, Ferguson said in an interview.
If you want to prolong the guilt, do it before they get a chance to say anything. If you want to help the relationship instead, give them a chance to own up to their transgression first, because that lets them save face by doing a morally right thing.
Leary, who studies emotions provoked by social situations, said in an interview he was surprised at first by Ferguson's results. Then he realized that the kindness strategy may come in two versions.
If the guilty party believes the person is sincere, it should "cut guilt pretty dead," he reasoned. But if they think the person still feels aggrieved despite the words, he said, "I think you're going to continue to feel guilty."