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 well-being. 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 posts (e.g., here) 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.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in her book The Old Way (2006), describes how the hunter-gatherers she studied would not criticize a person directly, but would instead use humor as an indirect means of inducing shame and thereby behavioral improvement. She wrote, “On the very rare occasions when self-control broke down, such as happened when two women could not stop quarreling, other people made a song about them and sang it when the arguments started. Hearing the song, the two women felt shamed and fell silent. Thus, the community prevailed without mentioning the problem directly.”
Similarly, Richard Lee, in his book The Dobe Ju/’huansi (3rd edition, 2003), wrote about how the hunter-gatherers he was living with used the shame-inducing practice called “insulting the meat” to prevent dangerous levels of pride from occurring within the band. He observed that whenever a hunter returned with a fat antelope or other choice game, he had to exhibit great humility about the catch. He had to describe it as scrawny, hardly worth bringing into camp, or describe it as the result of pure luck or someone else’s skill (such as that of the person who made the arrow). If he failed to do this, everyone else in the band, often led by the grandmothers, would talk in front of him about how skinny and useless the antelope was and how weak and stupid the hunter was. When Lee asked a wise healer about the purpose of this practice, the healer explained, “When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So, we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” [I can’t help but wonder how some of our politicians would have turned out, or would have survived, had they grown up in a hunter-gatherer culture.]
With regard to Lee’s story, it is interesting to note that shame is the opposite of pride, both in feeling and in bodily expression. Pride inflates our perception of the degree to which others value us, and shame deflates it. Pride leads us, physically, to hold our head high and puff ourselves up; shame leads us to lower our head and shrivel. It as if we are figuratively, and to some degree literally, disappearing. We, in the United States and generally in Western and Westernized countries, tend to be cultures that value and encourage pride and discourage shame, at least for the dominant majority. Perhaps we would be better off if we recognized, more than we do, the value of shame and the danger of too much pride.
This leads me to conclude this first essay with a reflection on the title. Yes, I am thankful to those people (or at least some of them!) who have shamed me at various points in my life. They have made me a better person, whether or not I admitted it at the time, by pointing out, sometimes with humor, sometimes not, directly or indirectly, the ways that I might be offending or harming others.
Keep tuned for the next posts in this series, which will deal with the ways in which shame can punish people who don’t deserve to be punished, the ways by which shame can be used unfairly as a weapon, and the ways by which the shaming of institutions can make the world a better place.
And now, what are your thoughts on this topic? This post is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your views and thoughts are treated with respect by me and other readers, even where there is disagreement. Without being more specific than meets your comfort level, how has shame influenced your life for better or worse? (I will write about “worse” in another post.) What do you think about the deliberate use of shaming as a tactic for improving the behavior of children? Some cultures use that far more than do others. Your thoughts and questions may well play a role in the thinking that will go into the next essays in this series.
As always, please put your questions and thoughts here, in the comments section (by clicking on the little comments balloon below), rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here you make them available not just to me but to other readers as well, and those readers may provide better responses than could I. Also, I get way more email already than I can read. I do try to read all comments to my blog posts, however, and when I have something that I think is worth saying that has not been said by others, I respond when I can find the time.