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The Science of Shame

In her master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, Dansie has examined another powerful emotion: shame.

 

“There is a general sentiment that saying sorry isn’t enough; you have to be sorry,” said Dansie. “And there are cues that people give in their body language that suggest whether they are apologizing out of real shame or simply guilt.”

 

“Human behavior is really interesting, especially emotions,” said Dansie. “I look at this through an evolutionary paradigm. Shame is more than just a sad feeling; it is an adaptive strategy we have evolved to bring a social interaction or a relationship back into harmony.”

 

One situation in which Dansie examined the effectiveness of shame was a job interview. Research subjects were asked to interview several candidates, each of whom made planned mistakes in their interactions. The way they responded to those mistakes varied.

 

Shame, said Dansie, was conveyed through non-verbal body language, such as lowering the eyes and stooping the shoulders. Guilt was conveyed only verbally, through a spoken apology. Some candidates conveyed one or both of these emotions, while others made no response to their mistakes. A control group made no mistakes at all.

 

“When the interviewers scored the candidates’ performance, they indicated that those who made mistakes and conveyed shame were rated nearly as high as those who made no mistakes,” said Dansie. “This means that shame is an effective adaptation and can successfully repair a misstep.”

 

Dansie is now applying this theory of shame to another arena—prison.

 

“There’s a new paradigm gaining popularity called restorative justice,” said Dansie. “It brings together victim and offender, and there is a chance for apology and forgiveness. I’m going to investigate if a shameful apology is as satisfying to a victim as seeing the defendant in court.”

 

Restorative justice, though, isn’t a theory Dansie is going to let rest once her dissertation is completed. She hopes to continue working with communities to study the impact of crime on victims and opportunities for them to be made whole again.