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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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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