Brain and Body

Shame is Actually Critical for Our Survival, Researchers Argue

March 2, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

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Embrace the embarrassment.

The sensation of shame is certainly not an emotion that we as humans actively seek out, but now scientists have shown that there’s an evolutionary reason for the uncomfortable, burning feeling. In a new study, an international team of researchers found that feelings of humiliation and embarrassment play a key role in our social survival mechanism.

"The function of pain is to prevent us from damaging our own tissue," evolutionary psychologist Daniel Sznycer, from the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in a press statement. "The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them."

After researching the role of shame across the United States, Israel, and India, the researchers argue that shame — just like pain — evolved as a defense.

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According to the researchers, the feeling of shame is powerful enough to coerce us into behaving in socially “acceptable” ways, and this mechanism dates all the way back to ancient human groups when social acceptance was critical for survival.

"Our ancestors lived in small, cooperative social groups that lived by hunting and gathering. In this world, your life depended on others valuing you enough to give you and your children food, protection, and care," said researcher and professor of anthropology John Tooby.

"The more you are valued by the individuals with whom you live — as a cooperative partner, potential mate, skilled hunter, formidable ally, trustworthy friend, helpful relative, dangerous enemy — the more weight they will put on your welfare in making decisions. You will be helped more and harmed less."

Yes, we’ve come a long way since the hunter-gatherer relations between our ancestors, but shame still functions in the same basic way today, according to the researchers. They describe the process as a kind of internal map that helps us keep track of the acts that would trigger feelings of shame — the acts that would diminish our reputations in the eyes of our friends and family.

"What is key," said Sznycer, "is that life in our ancestors’ world selected for a neural program — shame — that today makes you care about how much others value you, and motivates you to avoid or conceal things that would trigger negative reevaluations of you by others."

The researchers measured shame in a cross-cultural context by recruiting about 900 study participants across the US, Israel, and India. The volunteers were presented with a number of fictional scenarios — like infidelity, physical weakness, and stinginess — that might lead to devaluation of reputation.

The participants were split into two groups: one was asked how negatively they would view another individual who exhibited these traits, while the other group rated how much personal shame they’d feel if they exhibited the behaviors.

"We observed a surprisingly close match between the negative reactions to people who commit each of these acts — that is, the magnitudes of devaluation — and the intensities of shame felt by individuals imagining that they would commit those acts," said paper author Leda Cosmides, professor of psychology.

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The results, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that cultures around the world view shame similarly in both objective and subjective measures. People have an inherent sense of the feeling of shame as well as which acts would bring about a slam to one’s reputation.

However, despite this universal sense of shame, the researchers say it’s the opinion of our local social groups that matters most — especially because of what happens when our reputations are chipped away.

“When people devalue you, they put less weight on your welfare. They help you less and harm you more,” said Cosmides. “This makes any information that would lead others to devalue you a threat to your welfare.”

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