Psychologists who studied shame around the world say it’s an essential part of being human

No man is an island.
No man is an island.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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There’s a school of thought that says shame is a social construct: We only learn to feel inadequate and exposed because our particular culture sends us messages about what falls outside the realm of acceptability.

But an international group of psychologists and anthropologists are putting forward an entirely different theory: Perhaps shame is universal—an evolved mechanism that helps us avoid behavior that would make our social group stop valuing us. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, these researchers suggest that shame may be “a basic part of human biology.”

“Human foragers are obligately group-living, and their high dependence on mutual aid is believed to have characterized our species’ social evolution,” the researchers write. “It was therefore a central adaptive problem for our ancestors to avoid damaging the willingness of other group members to render them assistance. Cognitively, this requires a predictive map of the degree to which others would devalue the individual based on each of various possible acts.” In other words, our sense of shame arises from our ability to accurately predict which traits or actions will make other people think less of us—a skill that’s been important for human survival.

To investigate this theory, the researchers, led by Daniel Sznycer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Montreal, looked at 15 extremely different societies around the world, each of which was picked because it has—by today’s standards—little contact with other social groups. The researchers used local-language interviews to present a set of 12 scenarios that might prompt shame, such as a person breaking their promises or having a lot of sexual partners, to 899 individuals. Some of the participants had to imagine being the perpetrator, while others imagined that they were observing a community member.  Translators used the word “shame” in each of the local languages, or the closest possible word in that language, when asking their questions.

They found a clear pattern that held true for both fishing communities in Japan and forager-horticulturalists in Ikland, Uganda; from the Amazon rainforest to the far north of Mongolia. The extent of shame that people felt when they were asked to imagine possessing certain traits or committing certain actions mapped very closely onto the precise amount their community “devalued” that trait or act. Moreover, the traits and behaviors that elicited shame were similar across communities. A person who shirked work, for example, would have a negative impact on the larger group; someone who stole valuable resources would have an even bigger impact. The degree to which people felt shame for those things aligned pretty precisely with society’s perception of those actions, both where they lived, and across cultures.

The global study had a small sample size in each community, in part because the communities themselves are small. But according to Sznycer, the results suggest our sense of shame is evolved, not imposed.

“What people agreed on, both within and across nations, was the very precise magnitude of the extent to which something would be shameful or negative from an audience perspective,” Sznycer said. “That’s really powerful…[because] it suggests that the underlying machinery is universal.”

In 2016, the same group of researchers published a paper focused on feelings of shame in the US, India, and Israel. That paper also found that the more negatively a given trait or behavior was viewed by others, the more likely it was to elicit shame. But those societies, while distinct, aren’t entirely separate. The globalized economy has linked people in all three countries through everything from television to Facebook. So the question remained as to whether people in the US, India, and Israel had learned to be ashamed of similar things because of cultural crossover. The experiment with remote communities was an attempt to address that question.

The research counters some of the current thinking on shame, which progressive types tend to think of as something imposed from the outside—sometimes archaic, and often to be resisted. And of course, there are clear cases where the notion of social shame is used to justify truly egregious acts, like so-called “honor” killings, or to constrain others’ personal freedom, as with “slut-shaming.”

Sznycer notes, meanwhile, that even if shame is evolutionarily useful, it can still lead us to behave in ways that aren’t admirable. We’re so averse to the negative evaluations of our peer group that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid the feeling of shame. As an example, he tells the story of 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

As a 16-year-old servant, Rousseau steals a ribbon from his employer and is accused of the theft. The magnitude of shame he feels at the prospect of being labelled a thief leads him to blame a young female employee. Blaming others, as well as acts of aggression, are both common reactions to the “weight” that shame can place on us.

Years later, Rousseau wrote that he still felt deeply guilty about the lie. It’s a good example of the knots in which a powerful emotion like shame can tie us.