Sep 19 2009

Shameful Research on Shame

Published by at 7:32 am under psychology,skepticism

A single science article caused me to both nod and shake my head while reading it. At was about a study on treating “crippling” shame.

What I agreed with was some the author’s thoughts about shame. Jessica Van Vliet, from the University of Alberta, went on record with -

“Shame can prompt us to make changes that will help protect our relationships and also preserve the fabric of society. It’s important to emphasize that shame is essential and has value. . . .The problem is when people get paralyzed with shame and withdraw from others. Not only can this create mental-health problems for people, but also they no longer contribute as fully to society.”

No, shame is not a “toxic” emotion, always bad. The ability to feel shame is a social emotion, innate to human functioning. But too much of it can be a bad thing. Just can be too much of any emotion.

Van Vliet transitioned into explaining how debilitating shame can be overcome. That’s when I began shaking me head. Her explanation seemed infused with psych-speak (“one of the key components to overcoming these feelings is to step back from the problem”). I kept wondering what data she used to base her conclusion upon.

How did she come to the finding that the news release of her research touts? What, precisely? did she find?

Making connections the key to overcoming shame

Disappointingly, the article made no mention of the actual research Van Vliet was basing her conclusion, and advice, upon. I had to do some sleuthing to find out. And what I found in an abstract of her paper almost made me blush.

Methods: The participants were nine women and four men between the ages of 24 and 70. Data came from interviews in which the participants recalled a distressing shame experience and described how they recovered. Emphasis was on the participants’ subjective perspectives, meanings, and interpretations. [abstract]

Poor quantity of data. Poor quality of data. It seems that “scientists” in the psychological fields (my own) are still quite adept at taking an inch of observation/interview/measurement and running four miles with it.

The article concludes this way -

“Connecting to others helps to increase self-acceptance, and with self-acceptance can come a greater acceptance of other people as well,” said Van Vliet. “People start to realize that it’s not just them. Other people do things that are as bad or even worse sometimes so they’re not the worst person on the planet. They start to say to themselves, ‘This is human, I am human, others are human.’”

Really? Is that really what happens? Or is that a mere veneer of client/therapist thinking laid over a complex, largely unconscious, phenomenon? Where the data is weak/soft, researchers should be overtly tentative in the explanations they propose. Otherwise, they aren’t doing good science.

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