January 2016 Shame and Self-Compassion Research Update

Every month, we scour the scientific literature for interesting studies that have practical implications for therapists working with shame, self-criticism, or compassion. Below are a few of our favorites for this month:

New software suggests that altering the emotional tone in a recording can affect people’s emotional state

The authors of this study created a digital audio platform with the ability to alter the emotional tone of vocal recordings. Participants were asked to speak and then their recordings were played back to them after the emotional tone was manipulated. The authors found that participants perceived their emotional state during the recording to be aligned with the manipulated state, not the actual state they were in when they made the recording. For example, when the tone was manipulated from neutral to happy, the listener perceived their state at the time of recording to be happy, even though they were unaware that the tone had been manipulated. In addition, the participant’s emotional state changed to match the manipulated tone.

Take away: This study further reinforces the importance of paying attention to the tone/pacing/timbre of one’s voice, not just the content. A warm, friendly tone of voice can automatically trigger affiliative emotional reactions, even if the content of the communication doesn’t match. Much of this happens at a very quick, automatic level, with little awareness. In addition, it’s exciting to think that should this technology become more broadly available, perhaps high self-critics could listen to themselves speaking in a warm tone as a fast track to increased self-compassion?

Read more:
Aucouturier, J. J., Johansson, P., Hall, L., Segnini, R., Mercadié, L., & Watanabe, K. (2016). Covert digital manipulation of vocal emotion alter speakers’ emotional states in a congruent directionProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201506552.


Changing walking style changes memory for negative self-referent words

Did you know that your walk can reflect your mood? Think of a person who is depressed and how they walk. Do they walk differently than a happy person? In this study, participants were given biofeedback while walking on a treadmill in order to induce a sadder gait or a happier gait. Participants were unaware that the study was examining emotion. Participants also read a list of 40 words and were told to decide whether each word described them. Participants who were led to walk in a sad posture recalled significantly more words with negative valence compared to participants in the happy walk condition.

Take away: These results illustrate the bidirectional nature of emotion. What we do affects our emotions as much as our emotions affect what we do. This points to additional creative ways to work with shame-prone and self-critical people to increase flexibility in their self-to-self relationships. What would happen if a shame-prone person walked with a happy gait before going into a social situation in order to prime their social safety system?

Read more: 
Michalak, J., Rohde, K., & Troje, N. F. (2015). How we walk affects what we remember: Gait modifications through biofeedback change negative affective memory biasJournal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry46, 121-125.


You’re not alone: If you’re a therapist trying to develop a compassion practice, it’s normal for it to feel strange at first.

This qualitative study examined themes in the personal practices of therapists practicing compassion-focused therapy (CFT). Here are the five themes that emerged as listed by the authors:

(1) experiences of personal practice often felt strange to start with but were surprisingly powerful; (2) with practice, the exercises became more automatic and could be adopted as a 'way of life'; (3) personal practice was felt to increase both self-compassion and compassion for others; (4) personal practice often helped participants to feel more present for their clients; and (5) participants were more aware of what they were bringing to therapy.

Take away: Although personal compassion practices can feel strange at first, they may have powerful implications for therapists. Keep it up or consider starting one.

Read more: 
Gale, C., Schröder, T., & Gilbert, P. (2015). ‘Do You Practice What You Preach?’ A Qualitative Exploration of Therapists' Personal Practice of Compassion Focused TherapyClinical psychology & psychotherapy.

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