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  • Anya Fernihough

The Phenomenon of Guilty Pleasures

No matter how hard we may try to only consume media that is intellectual, insightful or well-respected amongst people we are trying to impress, we all have guilty pleasures. Despite it not being something that’s highly regarded, we can’t help being genuinely entertained by certain things. Whether it’s a TV soap or sitcom, some cheesy pop song or a 00’s rom-com, there’s probably something you wouldn’t openly admit enjoying to a group of people.

Guilty pleasures differ from person to person, largely depending on the type of person you are and the people you surround yourself with. Each community has its own overall likes and dislikes that individuals within them generally agree with, however everyone is unique and so can’t always fit into each societal expectation of them. For example, my brother is really into heavy metal, however would still be open to listening to a song from one of our favourite childhood TV shows (or maybe he just likes to humour me!).

In terms of the psychology behind guilty pleasures, perhaps a reason that many experience guilt from a particular activity is the societal pressure to take responsibility for our time and to be productive towards achieving our goals. Certain things like binge watching the new season of The Summer I Turned Pretty or just procrastination in general can be viewed as distractions, thus inducing a feeling of guilt in the person. I think it also can be said that guilt and pleasure have long been entangled in the subject of the human psyche. Studies undergone by Yale’s Professor Ravi Dhar show that there is a possibility that experiencing guilt over an activity can add to the pleasure that is received. In contrast, guilt can influence consumer choice, particularly when said choice could influence how the person is perceived. In Dhar’s studies, a group of people were asked whether they wanted to use the $5 they were given to buy a coffee or to donate to charity. Of course, a large proportion chose to make the donation.

It is uncertain as to whether this result is applicable to real world situations however, as the pressure of wanting to be perceived as a good person hugely outweighs the desire for self-indulgence. I think societal pressure is very closely linked to the phenomenon of guilty pleasures, as once this pressure is removed, people are much more likely to act in their own interests as they do not feel at risk of poor perception. It could also be said that if a person were to choose the $5 coffee over the charity donation, they would still feel guilt over not being as philanthropic, however this guilt could boost the amount of pleasure they get from the coffee, almost gaslighting themselves into improving how good a choice it was.

I think it’s important to note that what someone considers a guilty pleasure, another person may not. This could be due to the latter person just being generally more confident in their actions and not caring about what others think of them when it comes to subjects such as music or movie preferences, or simply because they genuinely enjoy that certain type of media and are in an environment (whether on a friend group level or wider) where it is not considered a guilty pleasure to begin with.

The embarrassment that comes with a guilty pleasure is something that should also be addressed. I feel that it’s a different type of embarrassment, not like when you accidentally call a teacher ‘Mom’ or something. You’re not embarrassed in the moment when you are watching that near-awful movie, more of the possibility of you being found out. The media has short-term payoffs, however there’s the potential for more long-term consequences in comparison. There are perhaps degrees of embarrassment, and I think that guilty pleasures are on a level of their own. It isn’t life-ruining, but rather something that might make you blush if it were to come up in conversation and hence something you may rather avoid talking about. Nevertheless, I think it can be agreed that there is no greater feeling than finding out someone you know also shares this guilty pleasure. In some ways, it can reduce how embarrassing the thing may be and the idea of ‘safety in numbers’ can perhaps be applied to this situation. It is also good to have someone you can talk to about your interests, free of judgement.

Regardless of whether everyone else has a different opinion of something to you, you should do what makes you happy. If that’s binge-watching a series that doesn’t have the best writing in the world, or screaming your lungs out to a cheesy pop song, it’s important to remember that everyone has guilty pleasures, and that you shouldn’t be ashamed of yours.

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