In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers argue that shame evolved as a defense to prevent individuals from damaging important social relationships.
“When people find out negative things about you — say, that you steal or are physically weak or sexually unfaithful — this causes them to be less helpful and more exploitative toward you,” says study author Daniel Sznycer, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of California Santa Barbara.
That could be a threat to one’s welfare and success in life — especially back in early human hunter-gatherer social groups. It is possible therefore that humans evolved shame as a way to defend themselves by avoiding or concealing things that would make others devalue them.
To test this “defense” hypothesis of shame, Sznycer and colleagues recruited over 900 adults across the US, India, and Israel to answer questions about two dozen fictional scenarios. Each scenario depicted traits expected to invoke shame, such as stinginess, infidelity, and physical weakness.
They asked one set of participants to report — on a scale of 1 to 7 — how much shame they would feel if they themselves were committing the act in the scenario, such as stealing money from another person. People in a second group were asked to be observers, and to rate how negatively they would view the offending person. How would they feel, for example, about a person they spotted stealing money?
In similar experiments, the team gauged individuals’ feelings of sadness and anxiety in response to each scenario.
If shame is, in fact, a defense against the judgment of others, the researchers expected the intensity of shame felt in the first group to match up with the intensity of negative perception, or “devaluation,” of the second group. Such a match would suggest shame evolved to deal with the threat of being devalued by one’s peers.
That is exactly what they found. “The shame scores in each of the three countries were very highly correlated with the magnitude of devaluation of those in the audience situation,” says Sznycer. Morever, feelings of anxiety and sadness did not match up, supporting the idea that shame evolved as a defense against being devalued.
The findings suggest that shame is an innate emotion that evolved across different cultures, and that it is an evolved, rational trait designed to protect the individual.
Supplemental information about the study is here.
More from Daniel Sznycer about his research and thinking on shame (from his UCSB page):
The psychology of shame.
Ancestrally, the degree to which other people valued one’s welfare would have affected one’s access to resources such as food, mates, and support in times of conflict. Becoming less socially valuable would have entailed fitness costs. This adaptive problem is expected to have shaped adaptations for decreasing the likelihood and the costs of being socially devalued. We proposed that one such adaptation is the emotion of shame. Using this basic functional framework, and in collaboration with John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, I developed a theory of shame—the information threat theory of shame (ITTS)—and tested predictions derived from it.
Failing to deploy countermeasures against devaluation when one is devalued is a costly mistake. Deploying shame measures when one is not devalued is another type of mistake. Thus, effective shame countermeasures require an understanding of what does and does not elicit devaluation. In fact, we found a strong match between the extent to which a particular situation elicits devaluation on one hand (audience’s perspective) and shame on the other (discredited individual’s perspective).
According to the ITTS, what counts as socially valuable differs from domain to domain. For example, in the domain of cooperation, a track record of reciprocating is viewed favorably. In the domain of mating, value is indexed by things such as cues of fertility and pathogen-resistance. Consistent with this, we obtained evidence that both the elicitors and the motivational responses of shame vary across domains.
The more a discrediting piece of information becomes widely known, the stronger the shame response is expected to be. Supporting this ITTS prediction, we discovered that the extent of publicity of a discrediting behavior modulates the intensity of shame—but not the intensity of guilt.
The ITTS was also instrumental in making functional sense of cultural differences in shame. The cost of being devalued by an existing relationship partner can be attenuated by forming alternative relationships. Therefore, cultures where opportunities to build new relationships are perceived as being scarce are expected to also display higher proneness to shame—and vice versa. In collaboration with Kosuke Takemura, Andy Delton, Kosuke Sato, Tess Robertson, Leda Cosmides, & John Tooby, we found evidence supporting this prediction among American, English, and Japanese subjects.