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Upset at yourself for eating all those doughnuts? You might make an appointment with a financial planner.

iStockphoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It is a bit of wisdom well understood by any parent who has ever uttered the phrase, "I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed." Guilt is a great motivator.

But that's not just true when it comes to convincing kids to turn around dismal grades or to rue the day they were caught trying a cigarette. Guilt can also be a powerful tool to inspire consumers to spend money.

New research from the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business has found that people are far more likely to buy products associated with self-improvement when they experience feelings of guilt.

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The paper, just published in the Journal of Consumer Research, may seem obvious: When people feel they've done something wrong, they want to fix it. But the effect is broader than that. Six studies with a total of more than 1,200 participants found that guilt can increase desire for self-improvement products that have nothing to do with the source of their guilt as well.

In what researchers call a "cross-domain effect," some people may offset those feelings with an unrelated purchase, without realizing the two are linked. Feeling like you're falling behind at work? You might decide to sign up for a gym membership, buy some running shoes, or download a fitness-tracking app. Upset at yourself for eating all those doughnuts? You might make an appointment with a financial planner. Reminded that you don't do enough for charity? Maybe it's time to finally learn how to make paella.

For marketers who advertise their products or services as a way to a better you – whether through education, fitness, nutrition, beauty or financial and career planning – the findings could have some fairly wide-reaching consequences.

"Guilt has this function of reminding you that you can do better," said Thomas Allard, a doctoral candidate in marketing and behavioural science at UBC, and lead author of the research. "It can be motivating."

To test this, the researchers performed a number of studies. In one, students on the UBC campus were asked if they would answer a few questions in return for a free drink. Some were asked how they felt about an ad for blood donation. The responses confirmed that it triggered feelings of guilt – a common reaction since many of us do not donate blood as often as we could. Others were simply asked to answer questions about themselves. They were then given a choice between two types of Vitaminwater. In a separate study, the researchers had tested those two types to see which was perceived as being higher in self-improvement qualities. Nearly two-thirds of the students who had seen the guilt-triggering ad chose the option perceived as better for them, compared to just 40 per cent of those who had not seen the ad.

To further examine the idea, another study had people recall a recent occasion when they felt guilty for letting someone else down. When asked to rate a fitness-tracking mobile application, those people were much more likely to say they would use it, compared to other participants who had not been asked to recall such an experience.

In a similar experiment, people who had recalled a guilty experience were more likely to choose to receive $1 less in payment for study participation, in order to receive a product for students designed to help with study skills.

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Other experiments verified that the increased desire for self-improvement products over other products was tied to guilt but not to other related emotions such as shame or embarrassment.

As an example of how this can be useful to marketers, Mr. Allard pointed to an ad campaign for Nike Inc. that ran in Spain in 2012. The campaign slogan was, "If something is burning you up, burn it up by running." It suggested a number of scenarios where people could release negative feelings by going for a run, including "I'm 26 and still live with my parents" and "My little dance last night in Huertas [a neighbourhood in Madrid known for its nightlife] is today's trending topic."

Mr. Allard pointed out that marketers choosing to use negative emotions should follow this example and pair those messages with positive ways people can improve themselves.

"Using negative emotions for marketing is hard," he said, explaining that it can backfire if people respond by tuning out the message.

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