Feeling ashamed about something you regret is natural – and part of human evolution, according to new research.
The study suggests that shame served an important function for our foraging ancestors – and was vital for their survival.
How it is generated, and its purpose, has been debated by scientists for years. Some argue it is a condition to be cured. Others dismiss it as a useless, ugly feeling.
Now a new study has shown shame can be traced back to the life threatening challenges faced by primitive man.
Psychologist Professor Daniel Sznycer said: “Shame’s reputation isn’t pretty, but a closer look indicates this emotion is elegantly engineered to deter harmful choices and make the best of a bad situation.”
Tribe members counted on others to value them enough during bad times to pull them through. Being deemed unworthy of help would have meant almost certain death.
So it was critical to weigh the direct payoff of a potential action against its social cost. For instance, the benefit of stealing food would have been compared with how much it would devalue them – and the likelihood of being caught.
But the researchers realised if this feature was part of human nature, it should be observed everywhere.
So they selected 15 linguistically, ethnically, economically and ecologically diverse set of cultures scattered around the world.
In these traditional, small-sized societies the intensity of shame people feel when they imagine various actions such as stealing, stinginess and laziness accurately predicts the degree to which others would devalue them.
Prof Sznycer, of the University of Montreal in Canada, said: “In a world without soup kitchens, police, hospitals or insurance, our ancestors needed to consider how much future help they would lose if they took various actions that others disapprove of but that would be rewarding in other ways.
“The feeling of shame is an internal signal that pulls us away from acts that would jeopardise how much other people value our welfare.”
A person who did only what others wanted would be selected against because they would be completely open to exploitation.
On the other hand, a purely selfish individual would be shunned rapidly as unfit to live with in this highly interdependent world – another dead end.
Co author Professor John Tooby, of University of California Santa Barbara, said: “Shame takes the hypothetical future disapproval of others, and fashions it into a precisely calibrated personal torment that looms the closer the act gets to commission or discovery.”
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said shame, like pain, evolved as a defence.
Prof Sznycer said: “The function of pain is to prevent us from damaging our own tissue. The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them if we do.”
The research crossed four continents where the people spoke very different languages, had diverse religions and made a living in different ways like hunting, fishing and farming.
Prof Sznycer said: “We observed an extraordinarily close match between the community’s negative evaluation of people who display each of the acts or traits they were asked about and the intensities of shame individuals anticipate feeling if they took those acts or displayed those traits.”
Interestingly, anticipated shame mirrored not only the disapproval of fellow community members, but also the disapproval of participants in each of the other societies.
For example, the shame expressed by the Ik forager-horticulturalists of Ikland, Uganda, mirrored not only the devaluation expressed by their fellow Iks, but also the devaluation of fishermen from the Island of Mauritius, pastoralists from Khovsgol, Mongolia, and Shuar forager-horticulturalists of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
What’s more, shame mirrored the devaluation of foreigners living nearby in geographic or cultural space just as well as it mirrored the devaluation of foreigners living farther and farther away – another indication of shame’s universality.