A revealing and undoubtedly controversial report in this week’s Economist, “Purification By Pain: The Mascochism Tango,” looking at the relationship between guilt and pain. Turns out there is one! Go figure:

The idea that experiencing pain reduces feelings of guilt has never been put to a proper scientific test. To try to correct that, Brock Bastian of the University of Queensland, in Australia, recruited a group of undergraduates for what he told them was a study of mental acuity.

Dr Bastian reports in Psychological Science that those who wrote about immoral behaviour exposed themselves to the ice for an average of 86.7 seconds whereas those who had written about everyday experiences exposed themselves for an average of only 64.4. The guilty, then, either sought pain out or were inured to it. That they sought it out is suggested by the pain ratings people reported. Those who had written about immoral behaviour rated the ice-bucket experience at an average of 2.8 on the pain scale. The others rated it at 1.9. (Warm water was rated 0.1 by those who experienced it.)

Furthermore, the pain was, indeed, cathartic. Those who had been primed to feel guilty and who were subjected to the ice bucket showed initial and follow-up guilt scores averaging 2.5 and 1.1 respectively. By contrast, the “non-guilty” participants who had been subjected to the ice bucket showed scores averaging 1.3 and 1.2—almost no difference, and almost identical to the post-catharsis scores of the “guilty”. The third group, the guilt-primed participants who had been exposed to the warm bucket and paper clips, showed scores averaging 2.2 and 1.5. That was a drop, but not to the guilt-free level enjoyed by those who had undergone trial by ice.

Guilt, then, seems to behave in the laboratory as theologians have long claimed it should. It has a powerful effect on willingness to tolerate pain. And it can be assuaged by such pain. Atonement hurts. But it seems to work—on Earth at least.

Can’t help but remind a person of the following quote from Grace in Practice:

“Something must be done about guilt. Everyone knows this from their own experience. There has to be some relief for remorse, whether personal or collective. You have to “Get the monkey off your back,”… Atonement provides this relief… We all wish that the innocent had not had to die for the guilty. We wish that a different road, a road less traveled in scars, had been taken. But we have been told that this was the necessary way by which God’s law and God’s grace would be resolved. It had to be resolved through a guilt-transfer, making it “possible” – the idea is almost beyond maintaining – for God to give the full scholarship to the candidate least qualified to receive it.” (p. 115-116)