Does physical pain alleviate guilt?

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Pain purifies. History is replete with examples of ritualized or self-inflicted pain aimed at achieving purification ( Glucklich, 2001). Some people feel that they can achieve reparation for their sins by simply experiencing pain; this may be why seeking self-punishment is a basic response to feelings of guilt ( Freud, 1916/1957; Nelissen & Zeelenberg, 2009).

Why are pain and suffering believed to serve as atonement for sin? One reason may be that the experience of physical pain alleviates feelings of guilt associated with immoral behavior ( Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007). There has been very little research on the psychological benefits of experiencing pain. We tested two hypotheses relating to when and why people are likely to be motivated to experience pain—that people should be more motivated to subject themselves to a painful experience when they are reminded of their own immoral deeds, and that the experience of pain should reduce feelings of guilt.

Source: “Cleansing the Soul by Hurting the Flesh, The Guilt-Reducing Effect of Pain” from Psychological Science

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