Guilty Pleasure: A Conflict of Emotions

Although, rationally, we know that certain actions we carry out shouldn't make us feel guilty, sometimes this feeling takes over. What lies behind guilty pleasure?
Guilty Pleasure: A Conflict of Emotions
Andrea Pérez

Written and verified by the psychologist Andrea Pérez.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Are you embarrassed to admit that you’re hooked on that teen series with ridiculous plots and lackluster acting? Do you love making peanut butter and ham sandwiches but only eat them when you’re home alone so that no one criticizes you? Do you tell people you love to read, but leave out the fact that the books you like the most are medieval romance novels? Congratulations, you’re in with the in-crowd. You can go on social media and claim that they’re your guilty pleasures.

In recent times, the term guilty pleasure has become popular on the Internet. It refers to those moments, actions, or activities that you really enjoy, but, at the same time, make you feel guilty for feeling pleasure when consuming them.

Normally, we speak of guilty pleasure to refer to entertainment products or to talk about food or drink. However, the term can be extended much further. In fact, both pleasure and guilt can come from all kinds of directions.

But is it possible that something that gives you pleasure also leads you to feel guilty? Why do feel you have to hide some of your preferences and keep them private? Would others really be hurt just because you enjoy something they don’t? Does it make you a bad person? Rationally, the answer is simple. If your likes don’t hurt other people, you shouldn’t feel guilty about them. Emotionally, though, it’s quite different.

Stereotypes, prejudices, and expectations: the reasons for guilty pleasure

Stereotypes per se aren’t necessarily bad. They help you to simplify and classify society and to be prepared for what you might find. Stereotypes are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, but they’re really just another cognitive classification system. Broadly speaking, they help you to simplify your life a little.

We all stereotype and, in turn, we’re all stereotyped. The problem comes when we take them as a stagnant and immovable classification. At that point, stereotypes begin to give way to prejudice, and with it comes negative connotations and expectations.


When someone classifies you in a certain way, you’re expected to act accordingly to that classification. For example, if you wear Iron Maiden and AC/DC t-shirts the logical thing is that you like those groups and people classify you as a rocker. They’d expect your playlist to be loaded with pure rock or similar musical genres. They’d also anticipate that, as a rocker, you’d act in a certain way, have certain tastes, and your interests would go in a certain direction. In effect, people stereotype, categorize and create certain expectations about you.

However, say one day you meet your friends, link up your playlist to the speaker, and, suddenly, Mozart starts playing. It’s the kind of music that, in principle, doesn’t fit into the categorization they’ve given you. In fact, it’s a style of music with a stereotype diametrically opposed to the one that’s supposed to be yours.

The expectations that the rest have created around you are broken. Your friends are surprised. They may even make comments that you don’t really feel like responding to. The feeling of guilt begins to surface in you for not being what they expected you to be. So you hit the next button, hoping that the shuffle will give you a song that doesn’t make you feel judged for liking it.

But you love Mozart. It gives you tremendous pleasure to listen to his music. That said, at the same time, you know that he doesn’t fit in with what others assume about you. This breach of expectations makes you feel guilty for listening to his music. Mozart thus becomes your guilty pleasure.

Guilt as an alert to disapproval

To a certain extent, we all seek to fit in socially. Therefore, whether in certain groups or others, on a larger or smaller scale, you look for affinities in other people. You also want them to like you. To achieve this, you project a certain image, consciously or unconsciously, about yourself. With your way of dressing, acting, or with your tastes, you tell the rest of the world who attracts and interests you or not.

In effect, a mold is created around you in which society needs to fit you and in which you yourself are putting your feet and making your own hole. If your mold is flexible and adaptable, you can adjust it without much problem. However, when it’s solid with hard and immovable walls, trying to get out of it can create feelings that aren’t particularly pleasant, such as guilt.

Feelings of guilt

Guilt can have its roots in the fear of not fitting in with the group you find yourself in. Or, because of your fear of being subject to prejudice due to your likes and dislikes. For example, fear that someone thinks you’re simple and unintelligent because you like to watch reality shows. After all, none of us likes to receive the disapproval of those with whom we seek to fit in. Therefore, when you feel you’re in danger of doing so, guilt emerges as an internal alert.

Nevertheless, guilt, despite being an emotion that’s considered to be negative, isn’t always bad. In fact, guilt has an adaptive character that helps you to control yourself and not cross certain ethical and moral borders. That said, when it comes to things as trivial and harmless as liking a certain series, style of music, or food, guilt shouldn’t limit you. If it does, you should try and relativize and be aware that you’re not responsible for the expectations that others have of you.

Break the mold… or not

If having a guilty pleasure produces guilt at a paralyzing level and you begin to stop being who you are for fear of not fitting in, it’s worth reviewing to what extent it’s really necessary for you to fit in with those people you’re hiding your opinions from. Maybe it’s not worth surrounding yourself with individuals who give so much importance to such trivial issues as what shows you like, what music you listen to while you shower, or what your favorite food is. Perhaps you should review your own mold and expand it and give it the shape you really want. Then, you’ll have more space to move around with greater freedom and security.

However, it’s not necessary to break the mold with a hammer. In fact, it’d be hypocritical to say that you don’t have to label yourself or others when, by simple social and unconscious acts, everyone labels those around them and also themselves. You can simply change your solid mold for another more flexible one. It’s not bad to have expectations, nor that others have them of you, as long as you’re aware that they can break at some point and that nothing bad will happen if they do.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.