Michael L. Slepian and Brock Bastian
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
First Published July 14, 2017, 1–17
We live in a world that values justice; when a crime is committed, just punishment is expected to follow. Keeping one’s misdeed secret therefore appears to be a strategic way to avoid (just) consequences. Yet, people may engage in self-punishment to right their own wrongs to balance their personal sense of justice. Thus, those who seek an escape from justice by keeping secrets may in fact end up serving that same justice on themselves (through self-punishment). Six studies demonstrate that thinking about secret (vs. confessed) misdeeds leads to increased self-punishment (increased denial of pleasure and seeking of pain). These effects were mediated by the feeling one deserved to be punished, moderated by the significance of the secret, and were observed for both self-reported and behavioral measures of self-punishment.
Here is an excerpt:
Recent work suggests, however, that people who are reminded of their own misdeeds will sometimes seek out their own justice. That is, even subtle acts of self-punishment can restore a sense of personal justice, whereby a wrong feels to have been righted (Bastian et al., 2011; Inbar et al., 2013). Thus,
we predicted that even though keeping a misdeed secret could lead one to avoid being punished by others, it still could prompt a desire for punishment all the same, one inflicted by the self.
The article is here.
Note: There are significant implications in this article for psychotherapists.