Why do nasty posts bother us so much? From public shaming to political echo chambers, I spoke to Terri Apter about praise, blame—and why nobody yet knows how to handle the internetby Stephanie Boland / March 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Why do we do our taxes? On the surface, it sounds like a stupid question. We do our taxes to avoid a fine; because the hassle of not doing them outweighs the hassle of doing them; because the government tells us to. We do it because we’re law-abiding citizens, and we know funding schools and hospitals is the right thing to do.
But according to Dr Terri Apter, we do it for another reason, too: to avoid shame.
In some ways, Apter has been researching praise and blame for a long time. In the introduction to her new book, Passing Judgement, she explains how she became interested as a young research student with the way nursing mothers modulated their voices to speak to their babies. Even these infants, Apter saw, had wanted more than just to be loved: “[there] was a need for love that also conveyed, ‘You are delightful and admirable.’”
Praise and blame, she quickly realised, were a key part of our sense of self. Building on research in evolutionary psychology, Apter began to note “how carefully we monitor other people’s judgements of ourselves.”
That’s why we do things like our recycling, and our taxes: because we know they’re worthy, yes, but also because being exposed as not having done them would be shameful.
It was only when she began identifying the same behaviour in other areas of our lives, however, that Apter decided to write about the two feelings in one book. New research in to how couples communicate, for instance, found that even our romantic lives are underpinned by blame and praise.
“There was this myth [that in a romantic relationship] there’s be total acceptance, and it’d be all ‘non-judgemental,’” Apter says.
“It was clear that a lot of exchanges that seemed almost neutral—‘have we run out of milk?’—could involve praise and blame implications.”
“‘Well, you’re supposed to keep track of milk,’” she imitates.
Far from accepting our romantic partners unconditionally, Apter concluded that it’s actually the case that “the closer we are, the more we exercise praise and blame.”
Why we can’t stop caring
Yet while Apter says that we care more about what some people think than others, she also stresses that “we never really don’t care at all what people…