How Shame Evolved as a Much-Needed Defense Mechanism

A new study explores the evolutionary reasons why we feel shame.

The word “shame” is an American fixture — think big union banners at protests, urging shame on whatever’s contested in bold red. When an aggrieved group publicly shames, it engages with the emotive word in the best way to get what they want: reform via public accountability.

While the purpose of public shame seems obvious, for years shame was considered the “ignored emotion” of human psychology. We know that almost everyone feels shame, but not why — until now. Shame evolved as a much-needed defense mechanism for society and ourselves, a team of international psychologists argue in a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Shame, in other words, prevents us from damaging our social relationships and motivates us to keep them.

Protestors outside the Wisconsin state capitol building.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

To test this theory, psychologists led by Daniel Sznycer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, ran tests with 900 participants in the United States, India, and Israel. They created two dozen fictional scenarios depicting traits that are often seen as shameful — like stinginess, physical weakness, and infidelity. Some of the participants had to report how negatively they would view someone who had these traits, while other participants described the shame they would feel if they actually had these traits.

There was a super-close match between negative perceptions of these traits and the intensity of the shame people would hypothetically cause someone who acted upon them. Shame is a system in the human psyche designed to trigger your devaluation by others, the scientists concluded.

Emphasizing shame as an evolutionary adaptation, the scientists coined the phrase the “information threat theory of shame.” Humans innately know that to survive, others must care about their welfare — and if they’re screwing up, shame reminds them of that. While sadness and anxiety make you feel unpleasant, nothing makes you want to crawl into a hole and want to die quite like shame.

No one likes the cone of shame.


The study also illuminated the connection between shame and cultures. For years it’s been presumed that there are significant variations on the elicitors and consequences of shame in different cultures. In the 1940s, a lightning-rod paper claimed that Japanese had a “shame culture” while the United States had a “guilt culture.” While we now know there’s an inherent difference between guilt and shame, this idea that Eastern and Western cultural differences affect shame perception still pervades academic literature.

This research is the first empirical demonstration that there is a very close match for feelings and causes of shame across cultures (the cultures here belonging to the participants in Israel, India, and the United States). Although the researchers emphasized they still think local audiences cause the shame — the people we interact with in person — the instigation of shame was the same across cultures.

“The sheer magnitude of the shame match to foreign audiences is stunning,” said paper co-author, psychology professor Leda Cosmides in a press release.

If you’re a cheap, cheating scoundrel, society will shame you no matter where you are. The good news is you’ve evolved to take that shame and transform into slightly less of a dick.

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