The Weight of Guilt

Have you ever tried to move a dead body?

I have. And it’s not easy, I can tell you.

It takes a lot of emotional energy to keep critterz light on their feet. (Or, in my example, hooves). When that’s absent, we are confronted with a dead weight. It’s as if the body is rooted to the ground.

My dog knows this. This is why every night when I go to bring her in, she plays dead. Emma is a rather large Pyrenean Mountain Dog and I can’t budge her. As I try and pretend to get cross she grins in hilarity. Thinks it’s great fun. And it is, actually. But not at 30 below. This is an all weather game.

Emma in a ball asleep


The OED defines ‘dead weight’ as ‘The heavy unrelieved weight of an inert body. ‘Inert’ is ‘Having no inherent power of action, motion, or resistance; inactive, inanimate’. Students of this course know that an early meaning of the verb ’emotion’ was ‘To cause to move’. No emotion, no movement.

Sufferers of depression know this all too well. The worse the case, the heavier they feel. Tell them that a million dollars in a bag across the room is theirs if they can reach it and many of them wouldn’t be able to rise from their chair.

But they weigh much the same as they did when they were well. Their feeling of heaviness is entirely subjective. I do not say ‘merely’. When we’re trying to move ourselves, ‘feeling of heaviness’ is paramount.

All of this is by way of an introduction to Martin V. Day and D. Ramona Bobocel’s The Weight of a Guilty Conscience: Subjective Body Weight as an Embodiment of Guilt.

I paraphrase from the abstract and conclusion:

Guilt is an important social and moral emotion. In addition to feeling unpleasant, guilt is metaphorically described as a “weight on one’s conscience.” Evidence from the field of embodied cognition suggests that abstract metaphors may be grounded in bodily experiences, but no prior research has examined the embodiment of guilt….

In conclusion, the present research revealed that personal experiences of immorality can be partly understood by sensations of weight, and that guilt appears to have some responsibility for this effect. Although guilt is literally weightless, we demonstrate that the embodiment of guilt can have consequences as if it does indeed have weight.

The paper is accessible, shortish and worth reading.

If you suddenly realize that you feel heavy and tired then I commend the following to you:

Miceli, M., and C. Castelfranchi. 1998. “How to Silence One’s Conscience: Cognitive Defenses Against the Feeling of Guilt.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 28 (3): 287–318.

If that fails, cling to this:

“Although the most acute judges of the witches and even the witches themselves, were convinced of the guilt of witchery, the guilt nevertheless was non-existent. It is thus with all guilt.” (Nietzsche)

The title picture shows Martha Cory and her persecutors. She was convicted of being a witch and hung on Gallows Hill on September 22, 1692, one of the last to be convicted and hung during the Salem Witch trials. She denied all charges and remained light and defiant to the end.

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