A videotape study of toddlers (1.5-3 years old) at play in a New York preschool1 showed significant differences in boys’ and girls’ relating with their mothers who were watching them. These difference prefigure some of the typical adult sex differences in shame coping strategies as mapped on the compass of shame: Girls glanced at their mothers 2.5 times as frequently as boys. If their mother was frowning in apparent disapproval girls quickly showed signs of distress, and sometimes self-punishment, such as banging their heads against a wall. Some ran to their mothers crying for comfort—apparently in attack-self. In contrast, boys reacted to their mother’s frowns by increasing their playing, such as moving trucks around, apparently as avoidance. If their mother scolded or commanded them to stop, boys would play more furiously or even throw the truck against a wall, apparently as attack-other toward the truck but not toward mother. Girls’ reactions elicited empathy from mothers and thus were more conducive to closeness. In contrast, boys’ reactions were more rough, uncomfortable, foreign and thus conducive to distance between them and their mothers.

Thus these different responses to maternal interruption of toddlers’ excitement and enjoyment may develop through childhood into general relating patterns towards women. Thus girls and women are likely to both 1. blame themselves for glitches in relationships, especially with women, and 2. Hasten to repair them, whether they are clearly their fault or not. In contrast, boys and men are likely to both 1. be unaware of or ignore glitches in relations with either sex and 2. unconsciously attribute any fault for such issues to someone or anything other than themselves. As a result men are likely to be far less experienced than women at repairing disruptions in relationships. Men are also more likely to get frustrated and angry when they are either 1. blamed for a social problem or 2. tasked with working out a way to repair it when they don’t know where to start.

As brain research has gradually taken over as the most objective scientific approach to human thought and emotion, shame has been studied since 2000 via a computer game called Cyberball combined with functional brain imaging.2,3 Researchers didn’t call it “shame,” however. But they gave it a label that describes one type of social behavior that matches Tomkins’ description of the origin, disconnection, quite well: “social exclusion.” In Cyberball a child or young adult sits in a functional magnetic resonance neuroimaging machine receiving a virtual ball tossed by one of two other virtual players, depicted as screen cartoons. Then the subject virtually tosses it to one of the others. But actually both other players are digital images in a program preset by the experimenters. At first the virtual players toss the ball to the study subject or between themselves in random order (inclusion condition). Then after several minutes of play as a threesome, the virtual players only toss the ball between themselves (exclusion condition). In contrast to study subjects’ inclusion brainscans their exclusion brainscans show more activation of two areas that also respond to physical pain.4  Thus hundreds of Cyberball research studies support the conclusion that the unexpected interruption and disruption of excitement and joy in a common type of playtriggers shame or “hurt feelings.”

But shame also plays a central role in runaway couple conflict, especially when it is unconscious.6 Researchers videotaped and then slowed down spontaneous conflictual interactions in couples and found that shame or hurt and anger alternated in every encounter. If hurt was recognized and not quickly transformed into avoidance, such as arguing to be “right”, it quickly became intolerable and showed as downcast eyes, efforts to hide and mental confusion, all signs of shame. But if hurt feelings were unacknowledged, then in less than a second angry, defensive, hiding, disrespectful, shaming or attacking verbal or behavioral responses would occur.7  Thus in couples conflict, also, unrecognized shame was found to result in defensive measures belonging to the compass of shame.

  1. Olesker W (1990). Sex differences during the early separation-individuation process. J Am Psychoanalytic Assoc 38(2), 325-346.
  2. Williams KD, Cheung CK, Choi W (2000). Cyberostracism: effects of being ignored over the internet. J Pers Soc Psychol 79: 748-62
  3. Hartgerink CHJ, van Beest I, Wicherts JM, Williams KD (2015). The ordinal effects of ostracism: A meta-analysis of 120 cyberball studies. PLoS One 10(5).
  4. Eisenberger NI (2012). Neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain. Psychosom Med 74(2): 125-36.
  5. The first neuroscientific text to map a comprehensive system of emotions comparable to Tomkins’ 1962-3 psychological system for both humans and other mammals named what Tomkins called enjoyment/joy “the play system.” Panksepp J (1998). Affective neuroscience, New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
  6. Scheff TJ, Retzinger SM (1991). Emotions and violence: Shame and rage in destructive conflicts. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.
  7. Retzinger SM (1991). Violent emotions: Shame and rage in marital quarrels. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
5. Further Shame Research, from Toddlers to Computers and Adults

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