Shame may feel awful but new cross-cultural evidence shows it is fundamental to our survival

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The 15 sites the researchers visited to study shame, from Sznycer et al 2018

By Emma Young

Shame feels so awful it’s hard to see how it could have an upside, especially when you consider specific triggers of the emotion – such as body-shaming, which involves criticising someone for how their body looks. But is shame always an ugly emotion that we should try to do away with? Or can it be helpful? 

The answer, according to a new study published in PNAS of 899 people from all over the world is that, as an emotion, shame can not only be useful but is fundamental to our ability to survive and thrive in a group. The essential job of shame, it seems, is to stop us from being too selfish for our own good. 

Daniel Sznycer at the University of Montreal, Canada, and his colleagues interviewed people living in 15 very different small-scale societies, including in the Andes in Ecuador, a remote region of Siberia, and the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. 

The researchers asked one group from each society for their thoughts on 12 hypothetical situations involving a person of the same sex as them, including how much shame this person should feel if he or she was ugly, or lazy, or stole from someone in the community, for example. Participants were also asked to indicate, using a four-point scale, how negatively they would view this person as a result (thus providing an indication of how much that person would be “devalued” by others). The researchers also asked members of a fresh group of participants in each society to indicate, again on a four-point scale, how much shame they would themselves feel in the various hypothetical situations. 

Overall, the researchers found very close agreement between the degree of felt shame that participants estimated being associated with a given act or state and how much they indicated a person would be de-valued as a result of committing that act/ being in that state. This was particularly true within a society, but it also held across societies. “The fact that the same pattern is encountered in such mutually remote communities suggests that shame’s match to audience devaluation is a design feature crafted by [natural] selection, and not a product of cultural contact or convergent cultural evolution,” the researchers write.

Our ancestors lived in small, close-knit bands, and they depended on each other for survival. In bad times, especially, they had to rely on each other to pull through. Always being selfless wouldn’t have been wise, as the individual would likely have been exploited. But for someone always to act contrary to the group’s ideas of what mattered, and what was important (that all members should contribute to the tasks important for survival, for example), would have been a bad move, too, as they could have found themselves shunned or even exiled. 

To thrive, the researchers argue, a person would have had to accurately weigh the payoff of an act (taking food without telling others, or pretending to be sick instead of foraging or hunting, for instance) against the cost if they were found out. The results of the study suggest that shame evolved to help us to make the right decision – to act in our own long-term interests by not seriously jeopardising our place in our social group. Shame, then, functions like pain – as a warning not to repeat a behaviour that threatens our own wellbeing. 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that shame is always good. If your group has badly skewed ideas about what really matters – if it places a high value on what clothes you wear, or what your body looks like, for example – then shame is skewed too, into something that isn’t helpful, but harmful. 

Cross-cultural invariances in the architecture of shame

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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