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The social impact of facial expressions of shame within the disclosure of sexual assault
AuthorSewell, Matthew Todd
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The estimated lifetime prevalence of sexual assault (SA) ranges from 9% to 47% depending on the sample and definitions of assault used by researchers. Victims are likely to experience other mental health related disorders. Stigma and negative social reactions associated with the disclosure of SA are critical factors related to the development of pathology for survivors of SA and have been linked to the incidence of psychological disorders like Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Recent research has suggested that shame may play a significant role in the development and maintenance of PTSD by interfering with the cognitive processing of the trauma as well as influencing behavior, such as social withdrawal and other avoidant coping strategies that maintain and possibly cause PTSD symptoms. Emotion research in social psychology and sociobiology suggests that the expression of shame should garner support and sympathy from others, thereby serving an adaptive and useful purpose for the survivor. This information is not congruent with research suggesting the experience of shame has a maladaptive impact for survivors of SA, suggesting the experience of shame does not garner support from others, or that the context of sexual assault may interfere with the proposed functions of expressions of shame. The purpose of this study was to experimentally assess social responses to expressions of shame within the context of sexual assault to explain a potential contributing factor in the stigmatization and negative social support often reported by SA victims. A college student sample was asked to view a series of 90-second video clips. Participants then answered questions to assess their perceptions and attributions regarding the individuals in the videos. Results suggest perceptions of adjustment were impacted by facial expressions of shame. In addition, facial expressions of shame elicited sadness/pity. Context was also a significant factor as participants generally attributed less culpability to individuals who were assaulted.