November 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:

Belongingness Affects Feelings of Guilt and Shame

Although both guilt and shame are often elicited by the same situation (transgressing a social norm), typically, guilt motivates people to make reparations, whereas shame motivates people to hide/focus inwards. This research explored how identification with a social group among college students affects feelings of guilt and shame following transgression of a social norm around drinking. Undergraduates recalled a time in which they: 1) drank more than their college peers (“transgression”); 2) drank as much as their college peers (“congruent”); or 3) drank less than their college peers (“restraint”). Afterwards, they reported how much shame and guilt they felt. Participants also reported how much they identified with their university peers (e.g. “In general, my university friends and peers are an important part of my self-image”). In the transgression condition, people who identified strongly with their peers felt guilt following the transgression, whereas people who identified weakly with their peers felt shame (Studies 1-3). These results were only observed when individuals reported how much they identified with their peers, as opposed to how much they identified with family members, or students from other universities (Study 2). Study 3 additionally assessed why people thought the transgression occurred. Whereas people who felt guilt attributed the transgression to negative behaviors (e.g. bringing a credit car to the bar), people who felt shame attributed the transgression to negative aspects of the self (e.g. being a bad student). Finally, Study 4 confirmed that feelings of guilt and shame following drinking transgressions influenced future behaviors. Strongly identified individuals felt guilt and then later consumed less alcohol, whereas weakly identified individuals felt shame and then later consumed more alcohol. Together, results from these studies suggest that identification with a relevant social group affects feelings of guilt and shame, which in turn may affect the likelihood of future norm transgression.

Take-away: Although results from this study need to be generalized, they suggest that shame follows a norm transgression when individuals don’t identify with a social group, whereas guilt follows a transgression when individuals do identify with a social group. If increased feelings of shame are related to increased subsequent drinking, then clinicians may want to consider helping clients connect with a sense of belonging to their social group following norm transgressions (e.g. drinking much more than peers). This research also suggests that when clients are experiencing shame, they view themselves, as opposed to their behaviors, as bad. Helping clients treat themselves self-compassionately may help break the negative cycle of norm transgressions (e.g. drinking too much), increased feelings of shame, and subsequent problematic behavior (e.g. continued drinking too much).

Read more:
Giguère, B., Lalonde, R. N., & Taylor, D. M. (2014). Drinking too much and feeling bad about it? How group identification moderates experiences of guilt and shame following norm transgression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin40(5), 617-632.


Marital Adjustment and Perceived Criticism from Spouses Affects Depression in Spouses

Many marriages don’t meet the “happily ever after” ideal. This study explored two factors that may influence depressive symptoms over the course of a marriage: marital adjustment and perceived criticism from one’s spouse. 132 opposite-sex couples completed measures of marital adjustment (i.e. marital disagreements, commitment, cohesion and overall happiness), perceived criticism (i.e. the degree to which spouses endorsed the statement, “My partner criticizes or belittles my opinions, feelings, or desires”), and depressive symptoms. Spouses completed these measures during the first year or two of marriage (T1), and then at one-, five- and ten-year follow-ups (T2, T3, and T4, respectively). Worse marital adjustment at T1 was associated with increased depressive symptoms at T2, T3 and T4 for both husbands and wives. Similarly, spouses with less perceived criticism at T1 had fewer depressive symptoms at T3, and T4. Interestingly, the researchers observed a gender effect such that husbands, but not wives, with less perceived criticism at T1 had fewer depressive symptoms at T2. Together, these results suggest that initial levels of marital adjustment and perceived criticism may be significantly related to depressive symptoms over the course of a marriage.  

Take-away: By focusing upon improving marital adjustment and decreasing perceived criticism, couple’s counsellors may help prevent spouses from later experiencing depressive symptoms.

Read more:
Peterson-post, K. M., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2015). Perceived criticism and marital adjustment predict depressive symptoms in a community sample. Behavioral Therapy, 45(4), 564–575. 


We Help People Who Walk Well in Our Shoes

This research explored what occurs when people think that another person has adopted their perspective. Across several studies, participants wrote about a challenging situation to what they believed was an unknown online counterpart who also participating in the study. (In actuality, this “stranger” counterpart did not exist). After describing their difficult situation, participants received one of two types of responses, which they were led to believe came from the “stranger” would had read what the participant had written-- 1. An “objective” response (e.g. “I have received your story”), or a “perspective taking” response (e.g. “I could really put myself in your shoes in that situation.”). The participant then indicated how much they liked and felt similar to the stranger, as well as how much empathy they thought the stranger had. If the stranger had adopted their perspective, participants thought the stranger was more similar to them and had more empathy. This, in turn, led participants to like the stranger more (Studies 1 – 4). Interestingly, participants only liked the strangers more if they believed that the stranger was successful in adopting their perspective (Studies 5-6). Importantly, liking the stranger led participants to act more generously. Namely, in economic games, participants who felt the stranger had successfully adopted their perspective shared their $1 bonus with the stranger (Study 3), and allowed the stranger to take the first turn, when doing so clearly gave the stranger an advantage (Study 4). Together, these results suggest that believing that another person has successfully taken our perspective is valuable: it leads us to like that person more, feel more similar to them, and be more generous towards them.

Take away: The client-clinician relationship may benefit from the client believing that you can take their perspective. If a client is having an interpersonal conflict (e.g. with a boss, family-member, etc.), consider encouraging them to imagine where the other person is coming from, and then to communicate that understanding with the other party.

Read more:
Goldstein, N. J., Vezich, S., & Shapiro, J. R. (2014). Perceived perspective taking: When others walk in our shoes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(6), 941–960.

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