Thank You for Shaming Me. Really. (EMBARRASSMENT)

By Peter Gray Ph.D. Freedom to Learn

This is Part I of a series on the functions and malfunctions of shame.

This seems like a ripe time in history to think about the emotion of shame. We are living in a period of renewed reckoning with the shame of the racist foundations of our nation’s origins and our implicit acceptance of the continuing structural consequences of those foundations. We are also living at a time when our most prominent elected official is notorious for an apparent lack of capacity to experience shame.

This essay is the first of a short series on the psychology of shame. What is shame? What is its value? What are its uses and misuses? This first essay in the series addresses the question of why the biological capacity for shame would have come about through natural selection in human evolution.

Psychologists, especially clinical psychologists, more often talk about the harm of shame than the benefit. There’s good reason for that. They find that many of their clients are suffering from undeserved global shame, which harms them more than helps them. But from an evolutionary point of view, shame must have some benefit—at least to our ancestors if not to ourselves—or else it would not have come about by natural selection.

You might be inclined to say that shame’s benefit is to society, or to our species as a whole, because without shame (or its cousin guilt) we would go around exploiting one another with no inner checks. Yes, that’s true, but from an evolutionary point of view that kind of explanation doesn’t fully wash. The capacity for any specific emotion, like all characteristics that are part of our basic human nature, must have come about through natural selection because of the survival or reproductive benefit it confers upon those individuals who have that characteristic.

In other words, my shame at the thought of harming you cannot be explained, evolutionarily, in terms of the benefit to you (reduction in your chance of being harmed); it must be explained in terms of the benefit to me. Shame is clearly psychologically painful. My shame hurts me, so how does it help me? Perhaps the best initial approach to thinking about shame is by analogy to physical pain. Physical pain benefits us by protecting our physical body. It is an immediate and effective punishment for doing things that could damage our tissues or kill us. By analogy, shame benefits us by protecting our social wellbeing. When it functions as nature intended, it protects us from doing things that could injure our reputation with other people.

We are social beings. Our survival as individuals depends on our ability to retain the approval, and therefore the support, of others. If others devalue us, don’t find us worthy of their time and efforts, then our lives are at risk. This was even more obviously true during our long history as hunter-gatherers, when the shame system would have evolved, than it is in modern societies where much of our support comes from people who don’t know us or from impersonal institutions.

I have previously written blog essays (e.ghere) as well as academic articles (here and here) about life in hunter-gatherer societies, based on reports from anthropologists who have studied them. Hunter-gatherers lived in small social groups, referred to as bands, and their survival depended in obvious ways upon continuous cooperation and sharing. They hunted and gathered cooperatively, cared for children cooperatively, and shared food, material goods, and information directly and personally in ways that allowed them to survive.

In such a band, a person who regularly cheated or violated the norms of the culture would ultimately be shunned and excluded from the band, a fate that could well lead to death. In such a society, the feeling of shame for even thinking about harming others or the band as a whole would work to keep a person on the straight and narrow and thereby keep them in the band. Furthermore, the bodily expression of shame, in response to others’ detection of an offense, would help convince the others of the offender’s contrition and readiness to reform. You can fake a verbal apology easily, but it’s harder to fake and maintain a convincing physical expression of shame.

In all such societies that have been studied, deliberate shaming is used as a tool of reform for people whose behavior is veering toward something that could be destructive to the band. For minor or initial violations, the shaming might be light, even humorous in the form of teasing, but still enough to induce some shame. Here are two examples (which I described previously here) from the anthropological literature on hunter-gatherers.

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