Redemption Through Suffering: How Self-Punishment Restores Moral Identity

Author: Melissa de Vel-Palumbo

de Vel-Palumbo, Melissa, 2018 Redemption Through Suffering: How Self-Punishment Restores Moral Identity, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Individuals sometimes respond to their misdeeds by punishing themselves. Though such behaviours might be thought of as dysfunctional, in this thesis I argue that self-punishment is a strategy transgressors may use in an attempt to restore their sense of moral identity. In particular, my research describes several mechanisms through which self-punishment achieves moral redemption.

The primary focus of this thesis is on the self-punisher’s experience. I propose that self-punishment can be utilised in two distinct ways to resolve the threat to moral identity triggered by one’s wrongdoing. One process is in line with experimental research arguing that self-punishment “cleanses” a guilty conscience (Bastian, Jetten, & Fasoli, 2011; Inbar, Pizarro, Gilovich, & Ariely, 2013), thereby protecting one’s moral identity by avoiding the implications of the wrongdoing. Yet, clinical research suggests that psychological self-punishment might exacerbate distress (Dyer et al., 2017; Whelton & Greenberg, 2005)—a finding that contradicts the predominant view. Thus, I delineate a second function of self-punishment, one of moral repair, whereby self-punishment acts as an exploration (rather than an evasion) of one’s guilt. My model brings together both functions by arguing that self-punishment can be both defensive and reparative. I find support for this model using various methodologies including qualitative exploration and quantitative experimental paradigms. Findings indicated that to the extent that transgressors acknowledged the threat to their moral identity, they were more likely to use self-punishment as an avenue for critical self-examination and moral repair.

I also explore the phenomenon of self-punishment from the perspective of third parties. I propose that self-punishment can also exonerate self-punishers in the eyes of others by restoring a sense of symbolic justice, thereby securing others’ forgiveness. Yet, my results suggested that whether self-punishment restored justice (and transgressors’ moral image) depended somewhat on third parties’ interpretation of the self-punishment. Third parties were more forgiving when they perceived that self-punishers were truly revising their moral values, in line with a process of moral repair. Taken together, the findings suggest that while self-punishers can redeem their moral identity through either excusing or confronting their wrongdoing, these two functions have profoundly different implications for intrapersonal and interpersonal repair.

Keywords: Self-punishment, morality, reconciliation, punishment, justice

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Michael Wenzel