Shame has an evolutionary purpose, say researchers

A new study finds why shame is important for human societies.

  • Scientists studied how people view shame in 15 societies across the world.
  • Human societies developed shame as a way for people to act in the group's interest.
  • Shame acts like pain, warning us of a threat to our long-term wellbeing.

In the age of the Internet, shame has acquired a new side - you can now be shamed by thousands of people at once (who have probably little actual knowledge of what happened). But while often destructive and painful, shame can be integral to our ability to survive in a group, says new study. The function of shame, it appears, is to stop us from being too selfish.

For the study, the researchers interviewed 899 people from around the world, focusing on 15 smaller societies in places like the Andes in Ecuador, the island of Mauritius, and a remote part of Siberia.

Daniel Sznycer from the University of Montreal in Canada and his fellow researchers asked one group from every society what they thought about 12 hypothetical situations. These concerned how much shame a person of the same gender as them would feel if he or she was lazy, ugly or a thief.

The subjects also had to rate how negatively they'd regard such a person on a four-point scale. This number essentially told the researchers how much a shamed person would be "devalued" by their society.

The scientists also interviewed a separate group of participants in each community to gauge how much shame (on a four-point scale) they would feel personally in different situations.


All the places where researchers interviewed people.Credit: Sznycer 2018

What the researchers found is that there's a strong connection between how much shame the subjects ascribed to a certain action or state and how much they thought the shamed person would be devalued. This suggests that shame has an important societal function. It is also likely a product of "natural selection" rather than culture.

"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," wrote the researchers.

Shame, the scientists conclude, is necessary for the group to maintain its cohesion. Those who violate the norms can get punished and pushed out of the group. As such, anyone who is considering breaking the rules – thinking about behaviors like stealing or lying – will have to weigh that decision against the costs they'd incur if caught. Shame is a mechanism for making the right decision, argues the research team. It helps us to act in line with our long-term interests, preventing serious infractions that would get us kicked out of society.

In this way, shame functions like pain, warning of behavior that would undermine us.

Check out the new study in PNAS.

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