Scientists have shed some light on why self-flagellation has historically been a popular form of penance. Causing ourselves physical pain can help relieve feelings of guilt, says a study in the journal Psychological Science.
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, asked a group of volunteers to write about a time they were cruel to someone else. They asked a second group to write about a neutral everyday interaction. Both groups were then asked about their feelings of guilt.
Researchers next asked all of the volunteers to plunge their hands into either an ice bucket or warm water, and then asked subjects again about their guilt feelings.
Those who wrote about their unkindness to others left their hands in the ice bucket for longer than those writing about normal interactions. They also reported greater pain.
Significantly, participants who dunked their hands in ice later had only half as much guilt as those who put their hands in warm water.
People seem to subconsciously seek out pain to relieve their guilt, said the study authors. This is because we imbue pain with meaning, equating it with punishment.
Other scientists have previously dubbed this tendency to physically punish ourselves when we feel guilty as the “Dobby effect,” named after Harry Potter’s self-flagellating house elf.