Tuesday, 28 September 2010


I have been reading about the psychology behind restorative practices (see yesterday's post). It's all fascinating stuff but I was particularly intrigued by the work of Donald Nathanson on shame. He states (after extensive research) that unlike many other emotions, e.g. anger, fear, disgust, surprise (described as a wipe-clean of the brain so you just focus on what's there in front of you), interest, enjoyment, etc, shame does not have any chemical or electric biological triggers when it is experienced. Although he admitted it might seem puzzling to some, he described shame, therefore as being simply the reaction to an interruption of a positive feeling or affect.

He saw that shame in his own children usually manifested in their turning their heads downwards and averting their eyes and that they also did this when a pleasurable or interesting experience was interrupted. This demonstrated that shame was not just felt when you did something wrong; it was also felt when a good thing was interrupted. This also explains why victims of wrong doings can also feel shame - as their positive experience has been interrupted. I found this interesting, and like he predicted, it took me a while to 'feel' that this absence of reaction was a possibility.

Then I did think of an example where I felt shame through the absence of positive affect. When I was a student teacher, the primary maths lecturer took us through how best to help children really understand the different numerical processes other than through using routine algorhythms. I actually enjoyed what he was teaching (the nerd in me). It was subtraction one week and we were discussing how you could help children to 'see' that when you subtract a negative number, you in effect add. I suggested that if you take away a negative thing like a hole, you in effect add something. I was enjoying my idea but he told me that answer was 'too contrived' and he carried on. Although I had done nothing wrong, his response stopped me enjoying the debate and all I can describe is that I felt shame! I remember wondering why I had felt that at the time. This chap's description of a break in positive feeling rang true.

Donald Nathanson then went on to describe four different responses to shame.

Attack other - blaming others for what they have done and lashing out at them
• Attack self - where people self reprimandnad blame themselves e.g. "I am so stupid"
• Avoidance- where a person side-steps away from the shame by making jokes or using other distractions. Some of these distractions can be quite damaging such as alcohol abuse.
• Withdrawal - the run and hide response.

I suspect there are gender biases with some of these but he states that 'attack other' and 'avoidance' are the most common responses in our society. The responses can of course also vary in intensity - from full on to very mild.

I would guess every individual has a default reaction to shame and becoming aware of this can help our behaviour be managed. If shame is simply an interruption of positive experience, we probably all feel it pretty regularly!

N.B. I read far more explanation than I have written but the justification of exploring shame in terms if restorative practice is that RP manages shame and negative feelings and leaves an outcome of positive feelings unlike punishment. The relunctance to destroy the positive feeling created by restorative practices means repeat 'crimes' can become less likely for some individuals.


  1. No more on things I have read for a while I think!

  2. Here's a challenge that relates to both this and the last post - and maybe explains where I was coming from. It is meant to be constructive though I suspect you instinctively won't like the process. (P versus J probably)

    How much of this stuff do you embace because you intuitively like it - because its messages resonate with you? And how much time do you spend seeking out counter evidence? Honestly now... how many books and theories have you sought out, specifically to counter your intuitions and challenge this and similar theories you'd like to believe are true? I may be wrong but I suspect very few.

    And to be fair it is a tough thing to do. Also to be fair I haven't read the books you refer to and your blog can only be a summary. But hopefully you realise that the point I am making is more general than the RP theory.

    My real dislike of these 'theories' is that they are too simplistic and not rigorous enough; more than anything they don't do what Karl Popper suggested - 'spend ninety nine percent of your time trying to disprove your hypothesis. If it still passes the test, then, and ONLY then, should you even consider publication.'

    Popper is an extreme if brilliant example of the sceptic. I don't always require that level of proof, but we should be wary of buying into all embracing and emotionally seductive theories on the basis of a book, a few well chosen few case studies and some video evidence. ( I know you don't quite say it is an 'all embracing' solution - but in your enthusiasm it is hinted at )

    I've read dozens of books / theories like this - most go by the wayside in time. And the reason is that whilst they are plausible and often offer some insight, they are frankly not rigorous enough - they confuse correlations with cause and don't offer anywhere near the proof we would expect in other contexts. (medical drug testing for example)

    So that's my problem. It's not that I want to punish people at all - we have 10,00 years of evidence to show that is not an all embracing solution either. And it is not that I think the RP hypothesis is wrong ( I support the idea of support!) - it is just the rather nerdy point that I believe we should temper our excitement, and reflect how much of our enthusiasm is objectively supported.

    Before leaving, here's a thought-test my philosophy tutor used to make us carry out (oh, you would have so disliked those tutorial!)... Ask yourself something like: 'If I intuitively loathed the RP hypothesis - if it absolutely conflicted with the very core of my values - would the evidence offered in the book be sufficient to convince me it was correct? And what doubts would remain? Go on - give it a try - and at the same time list all the couter evidence you have actively sought out.

    It's quite a difficult thought experiment to carry out. But My tutor would say - and lets's not hide behind him, I agree - that if there was not enough evidence to entirely convince you, or if any doubts remained, you should extremely be sceptical of embracing the theory - for it is a sure sign that emotion and preference, are to some (probably large) extent driving your view.

  3. Hi Mark,
    Going intuitively (not soppy floaty fluffpot stuff) but N as in Myers Briggs (I am 92% on that spectrum!) with something is enough for me. I don't do rigorous proof - I'd be bored senseless before it was provided - I do gut instinct followed but trial and error and let's see what happens. that's what I did as a teacher and sometimes things were fantastic - sometimes not so...but I reflected and learnt on the journey - with my big picture context.

    I think this is the classic ENFP (enthusiastic, big picture, about what ifs and possibilities, idealist, creative, 'about the people man') response versus INTJ - hard on yourself and hard on everyone else and sceptical and needing hard evidence- responses. Who is to say which works best and which makes anything productive more or less likely to happen? I hate to say it but we are both being predictable and true to type!!!!

    I still think RP is better than punishing people - intuitviely - and with years of classroom experience - and will now explore it's possibilities further without needing the hard evidence you would.

    There - have we agreed to disagree now?

  4. I just re-read that and I sound like I was anti-INTJ and really pro ENFP (from the descriptions I used) so need to add that INTJs are analytical achievers, patient with complicated situations, love problem solving and can be decisive!!! Quite different from ENFPs that can be fickle and flighty... Jamie Oliver is classic ENFP....I am sure he annoys people!!!

  5. Avoidance, deliver me from shames!

  6. Eric - me too...avoidance. I'm great at side stepping into beer, jokes, distraction, changing the subject, giggling. Think I'm fantastic at it in fact!

  7. Hey, it's okay to write about this! Your example from your student teacher experience helped me to understand what's going wrong with my karate class. The senior instructor is an old bachelor who has really no idea how to teach, much less deal with children. I've been his student for years, and I have stopped attending because I can't bear the way he tells the children they are doing it wrong instead of encouraging them when they do it right. He wastes large chunks of class time belittling students instead of encouraging them. We have two junior instructors in their forties who are excellent, educated men with children and who know how to teach. But the senior instructor will not step aside. It's rather tragic. I actually attend secret classes with both junior instructors. It's so sad what is happening to those kids. You have helped encourage me to do something about this. It's a class offered by the city government. Perhaps I can do some politicking.

  8. Hi Fred,

    I'd be interested to hear if you have an impact on that situation. Teachers have so much power. They rarely consciously abuse it and they can be totally unaware of the negative impacts they are having!

    When I ask teachers to rememeber a negative memory from school and then ask whether their memories were caused by an adult or a child in school - the majority say it was an adult. I do it to highlight the lasting impact of a teacher's power (and therefore suggest they be careful with it). When they share the stories, they are always of shame and humiliation - and some stories are nearly 40 years old -but they stayed with the person!


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