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.
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