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.
It's not just for the lols. If you're up for some soul-searching, they need you to contribute to this MIT research survey...
I recently had a conversation with a colleague that works with me in the MIT AgeLab. He specializes in AI and machine learning. As we walked and discussed his current work on autonomous vehicles, I asked him, “Where would you like to take your research?” Without missing a beat he responded, “I would like to build a robot that you would want to have a conversation with.”
Robots may be rapidly losing their novelty. It seems that in just a few short years they have become ubiquitous. Sometimes we don’t even recognize the robots that are living among us. Once things of science fiction, they are now in nearly every discount store. Some are toys. Hasbro’s Joy for All robots are designed to provide companionship to older adults while PARO, a robotic seal, serves as a therapeutic intervention helping those suffering from PTSD or from dementia. Thanks to Amazon Echo, Google Home and others, bots are making shopping lists, playing music, controlling home lighting and temperature, even offering personal exercise routines. Other robots are vacuuming our floors and cutting our lawns.
Most people see robots as complex devices to fulfill a specific task. But, beyond obvious applications in transportation, law enforcement, logistics, work, shopping and healthcare, robotics will soon reshape our most personal moments.
Changing global demographics and living patterns may provide a new role for AI — keeping us company. Today, nearly 30 percent of households in the United States are households of one. Home alone living is more pronounced in some cities than others. For example, nearly half of all households in the cities of Atlanta and Washington, DC are people living solo. In some parts of Europe nearly half of households are comprised of a single person. Euromonitor reports that over the next 14 years, households of one will increase faster than households comprised of couples, families or roommates. Nearly 120 million new single-person households will be formed worldwide over the next decade and a half.
That brings me back to my friend who plans to build a robot you would want to have a conversation with—the emphasis is on want. A recent article in Wired suggests that even robots designed for sex may be far less complex than design challenges associated with creating the intimacy one needs to feel and want to have a conversation. Wanting to have a conversation with someone depends on many factors. One of them is the likeability of your conversation partner.
Well beyond the formidable technical requirements of engineering a conversational robot are the equally challenging elements of likeability. Understanding what behaviors, physical features and other elements contribute to what makes us want to share a few minutes with someone, or some thing, will require integrating insights from the social and behavioral sciences as well as the arts and humanities.
The 2004 presidential election provides one dimension of what likeability might mean in the public’s mind. Many observers found it difficult to explain George Bush’s 2004 defeat of John Kerry. Pollsters and pundits came to the conclusion that Bush’s victory was less about policy and more about who was more likeable. George Bush was described simply as the guy who you’d want to have a beer with. The beer test is now considered the standard for both electability and likeability.
What design features and capabilities would a robot need to include for you to want have a beer (and a conversation) with it? Can we design a likeable robot?
Appearance does matter. What would you want your 'bot to look like? Should it have a human form—somewhere between cool and creepy? Some people might prefer an animal shape similar to a favorite pet. Others might want an entirely novel creature—a talking narwhal perhaps?
Would gender matter? Just as online navigation systems allow users to choose the gender of the voice providing directions, what gender would you want your conversation buddy to have?
And, then there is the conversation itself. What would you want to talk about with your ‘bot—news, weather, money, sports, other people? Netflix videos? Romance? Sex? Should your robot have a sense of humor?
Robot conversations will demand an entirely new level of interpersonal trust. Are beer ‘bot chats to be confidential? Would you expect your robot companion to keep all your secrets? After hearing your secrets, would you want advice from your AI?
If you find the idea of having a conversation and a beer (or any other beverage of your choice) with robot interesting, help us identify the elements of your ideal robot. We are collecting ideas and preferences in a brief survey and invite you to contribute. Take our survey here. This is not a scientific poll, but rather a thought exercise to inspire and inform our thinking. General results will be reported on the MIT AgeLab website: agelab.mit.edu.
Likeability is a profoundly human perception and quality. If we are to develop a robot that we want to spend time with and speak with, not just give orders to, we will need to better understand those human qualities before we can engineer them into our new AI friends at home.
Ever heard a story that made you sick to your stomach? There is neurological wizardry at work that makes our sense of morality so visceral—and flawed.
Have you ever witnessed something that made you sick to your stomach? Have you listened to a story so evil that you felt you might faint? Humans are different from other animals because we have a mind for symbolism. This knack for metaphor complicates our lives, and that is evident at a neurological level. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, explains that our insular cortex evolved to teach us to feel disgusted by things that would harm us: the taste of rotten fruit, the smell of infection—those triggers set off a visceral reaction (like nausea, gagging, vomiting). Gradually, our societies developed a concept of moral transgression but evolution didn't keep pace. Rather than evolve a new brain region to process moral disgust, it was (and is) funneled through the insular cortex. Our bodies can't tell the difference between moral and visceral disgust, which is why we very often mistake things that are strange to us as things that are bad or immoral. This explains why people are so judgmental about alternative lifestyles, and feel confident labelling other people's decisions as "wrong" and theirs as "right". Awareness of this misattributed impulse reaction can hopefully help us pause and think beyond our faulty wiring. Our moral instincts may be seriously flawed. Robert Sapolsky is the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.