Understanding the role of guilt and shame in physical activity self-regulation


Control theorists suggest that negative emotions result when goal progress is thwarted and, in turn, motivates goal pursuit. Control theorists do not differentiate between negative emotions or their implications for self-regulation yet self-conscious emotion researchers recognize distinctions between guilt and shame with different self-regulatory influences. Guilt results when transgressions are attributed to lack of effort and motivates effort. Attributed to inability, shame leads to goal disengagement. We examined guilt and shame relative to recent exercise behavior, as well as each emotion's motivational properties. In this online study, 175 adults completed measures of recent exercise quantity and quality, attributions, and shame and guilt relative to a day when they did and a day when they did not engage in intended exercise. Participants experienced more guilt (t = -10.784, p < .0001) and shame (t = -7.075, p < .0005) after a missed than an engaged-in exercise session. Of these two emotions guilt was felt more intensely (t = -6.613, p < .0001). Regressions determined that exercise quality was negatively related to both guilt (beta = -.429, p > .001) and shame (beta = -.499, p > .001); these emotions were not related to exercise intentions. Guilt was associated with an internal locus of casualty (beta = .393, p > .05) and shame with stability (beta = .248, p >.05). Logistic regressions showed that shame (beta = -.11, p = .05), not guilt, was (negatively) associated with exercise. Findings partially support, within an exercise context, propositions about shame and guilt in self-regulation.