Affects and Scripts Motivate Everything

Tomkins’s overall theory—Human Being Theory—is at once complex and simple. But it only becomes simple with a great deal of study and the suspension of your previous beliefs about human motivation.

My interest in Restorative Practices began the moment I met Marg Thorsborne in the mid 1990’s. Her enthusiasm in learning about Tomkins’s affect/script psychology and her ability to make restorative applications come alive in the lecture hall were irresistible to me. We began a collaboration that culminated in the 2014 publication of The Psychology of Emotion in Restorative Practice: How affect script psychology explains how and why restorative practice works.

In this blog I will define affects and scripts in a fashion that will hopefully stimulate questions in you. Tomkins’s overall theory — Human Being Theory — is at once complex and simple. But it only becomes simple with a great deal of study and the suspension of your previous beliefs about human motivation. Those already versed in affect/script theory will likely benefit the most from the interactions here. If you are new to the theory, I hope to motivate you to question what I write and then have the interest to seek further information.

By way of definition: affects are inherited biological responses to stimuli received by our senses and transmitted to the brain. Feelings are the conscious awareness that an affect has been triggered. Emotions are “scripted” responses to our lifelong accumulation of affects and feelings and the need to manage them. Affects are brief events whereas emotions are usually not brief.

It is the evolved function of affect to provide us with up to the minute information about what is going on so that we pay attention to the most important events taking place in our world.

The triggering of affect is an automatic process; it does not require thought and, note carefully, we only become consciously aware of something if it first triggers an affect. It is this fact that makes affect the critical first step in the motivation of all behavior and cognition as well as in the formation of personality.

Tomkins delineated 9 affect mechanisms: interest-excitement; enjoyment-joy; surprise-startle; distress-anguish; shame-humiliation; disgust; and dissmell. Except for the last two, each affect mechanism has a range from mild to intense. Each is a “mechanism” because it involves a unique set of bodily responses in the face and other parts of the body. Affects are short-lived events but they almost immediately trigger scripts forged over time to deal with them. Some scripts are also short-lived, but others become embedded within personality.

The affects of prime importance in relationships and restorative processes are interest-excitement and shame-humiliation. There is a continual interplay between these affects from birth on. Interest is a positive state that we wish to continue, whether it is interest in our own achievements or interest in others being interested in us and we in them.

The affect mechanism that is triggered when interest is blocked is shame. Shame begins simply as information that positive feelings we wish continued are being withheld by some person or thing.

Chronic shame from such things as dysfunctional early relationships, physical or mental abuse, feelings of physical or cognitive inadequacy, poverty, discrimination or anything else traumatic to one’s sense of self motivates the building of defensive scripts. There are four categories of shame scripts into which all such defenses fall: Attack Other, Attack Self, Withdrawal and Avoidance/Denial.

Restorative work always involves dealing with a combination of these four defensive scripts. The ultimate goal is, of course, to “restore” positive feelings to those in need of intervention. This also always involves a central focus on relationships and helping those immersed in shame defenses to feel the interest in them and who they are and what they feel communicated by the restorative practitioner.

Practitioners informed in the behaviors and cognitions often disguised by the four defensive shame scripts are better equipped to recognize the shame that motivates them.

Understanding human motivation is key to effective restorative practice and the ability to teach it to others. It would be of great interest to me if you would be willing to share situations that have arisen in your work about which you have questions concerning the motivation behind the thoughts and behaviors of the people involved. Please also feel free to ask about any aspect of affect/script theory that either interests or confuses you. If you are interested in a basic writing about affect/script theory, please follow the link to: A Primer of Human Motivation.

  • The Art of Intimacy and the Hidden Challenge of Shame is available as an e-book at several sites: The Art of Intimacy and the Hidden Challenge of Shame eBook by Vick Kelly Jr – 9781476367880 | Rakuten Kobo United States

And Kindle editions in the UK and States:

The Art of Intimacy and the Hidden Challenge of Shame eBook: Kelly Jr. M.D., Vernon C.: Kindle Store

  • The Upside of Shame:
  • Shrink Rap Radio Interview:

About the Author

Vernon C. Kelly, Jr., M.D. (Vick) is a psychiatrist with a professional interest in the motivational impact of affect and emotion. He has lectured internationally on childhood trauma, the theoretical foundations of restorative practices, psychotherapeutic interventions, and emotional intimacy.

He cofounded the Tomkins Institute with Donald L. Nathanson, M.D. in 1991 and is now on the Advisory Board. He is a former Member of the Board of Restorative Practices International.

He is author of The Art of Intimacy and the Hidden Challenge of Shame; co-editor with Margaret Thorsborne of The Psychology of Emotion in Restorative Practice; and co-author with Mary Lamia of The Upside of Shame: Therapeutic Interventions Using the Positive Aspects of a “Negative” Emotion.