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Friday, March 10, 2023

What does being hard on yourself communicate to others? The role of symbolic implications of self-punishment in attributions of remorse

Hechler, S., Wenzel, M., Woodyatt, L., & 
de Vel-Palumbo, M. 
(2022). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 101. 


Self-punishment, the adverse treatment of the self as a response to own wrongdoing, seems dysfunctional on first sight. However, it may have interpersonal benefits, as it may affect how others perceive the offender. We argue that self-punishment communicates the offender's reaffirmation of the violated values as well as their own status degradation. Consequently, observers may attribute more remorse to the offender who self-punish, which in turn may increase their willingness to reconcile with the offender. Four studies conducted in the US and Germany (Ns = 285, 609, 648 and 603) tested these predicted processes experimentally by crossing self-punishment with an explicit message of either value restoration or status degradation from the offender. We employed a measurement-of-process as well as a moderation-of-process approach to investigate the processes underlying the attribution of remorse. The results consistently showed that, in the absence of an explicit message, self-punishment increased third parties’ attribution of remorse to the offender, but not (or less so) when offenders issued either explicit message. Both explicit messages increased remorse attributions, but this was not further enhanced by self-punishment. This pattern of redundancy implies that self-punishment and messages of value restoration and status degradation are interchangeable in their effects on remorse perceptions. These findings indicate that self-punishment communicates value reaffirmation and status degradation, and through these mechanisms increases remorse perceptions that are linked to third parties’ willingness to reconcile with the offender. The findings provide experimental evidence for a communicative function of self-punishment that may facilitate the restoration of jeopardized relationships.


At first glance, self-punishment seems a dysfunctional strategy to deal with one's own wrongdoings. The present studies indicate that self-punishment may in fact help to rebuild jeopardized relationships because self-punishment sends a message to others: they understand the offender's self-punishment as a reaffirmation of violated values and degradation of status, and consequently perceive the offender as remorseful and are willing to reconcile with them.