This post was written by Amelia Moores (@amoores9) as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, where students are asked to explore a key finding in psychology. This is a compulsory course for students studying BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science and as an outside option, with permission, on other LSE programmes. This course is also available as a summer-school programme, IR110: Foundations of Psychological Science available here.
What is shame?
Shame is a highly unpleasant, self-conscious emotion arising from a sense of one’s behaviour being considered dishonourable, degrading, or undignified. The experience of this emotion causes a sinking feeling of disappointment in ourselves where we hang our heads low. This response may be caused by an embarrassing thing we’ve done, like stealing, or a character flaw, like laziness.
People may wonder whether there is any point to such an unpleasant emotion. However, research suggests that shame is essential to our survival.
Shame is a universal system
Daniel Szyncer explored this in his study in 2018 where he conducted a series of interviews on 899 participants from 15 small-scale societies. These ranged from Coquimbo in Chile to Ikland in Uganda.
Interview participants were asked to consider twelve different scenarios based on the customs, habits, and mutual differences of their community. Each scenario was created in a way that the actions, traits, or circumstances of an individual could cause them to be viewed negatively. The participants were assigned to one of two conditions:
- reacting to the scenario as though they, themselves, were involved;
- as though an individual of the same sex were involved.
Their reactions were then measured using a 4-point scale (4 being very negative).
The findings showed that for each scenario, each community agreed on the extent to which they would feel personally feel shame, or would view a same-sex individual negatively if they weren’t.
As can be seen in the scatter plots, there was some variation in the reactions of shame; certain societies did not express negative reactions for some scenarios, whereas others did. However, there appeared to be no influence on shame relating to linguistic similarity, religious similarity, or geographic proximity. This suggests that shame could be a human universal adaptation formed through natural selection.
Shame and our hunter-forager ancestors
Shame can be traced back to hunter-forager times when there was greater dependence placed on the group to aid in survival (e.g. through food-gathering and protection). Individuals had to make themselves valuable, a behavioural pattern that would make a group more willing to cooperate with each other. Shame in this process allows the individual to identify, and so avoid, the “selfish” decision that could lower their position within their social group. This is done by the individual weighing up the payoffs of a particular action (e.g. stealing) against the potential drawbacks it could cause (e.g. mistrust in that person and/or removal from the group). Therefore, the thought, or experience, of the consequences of their actions causes a sense of pain in the individual, which is so unpleasant that generally they are deterred from carrying out, or repeating, the action.
In today’s society, although our dependence on the group for basic survival is not as crucial (e.g. in relation to hunting for food), we still have a significant need to have supporting relationships for our safety and happiness.
Present day shame
As our society has developed and changed, so has the emphasis we place on certain ideas. This has skewed the idea of shame as a survival technique because, in certain circumstances, the fear of external shame, and the desire to belong to a group, has become so great that people will override basic survival needs in order to avoid others being ashamed of them (Gilbert, 2004). This can be seen, for example, in the case of eating disorders.
One way that people try to obtain approval from others is through their physical appearance (Ferreira, Pinto-Gouveia, & Duarte, 2013). Individuals do this by attempting to control their weight through eating to try and enhance their own social status, and make themselves seem more attractive to the group (Gatward, 2007). We live in a society where there is a great emphasis placed on having a slim figure, which has encouraged a focus on body shape and the association of shame with eating.
This view has grown with our increased use of social media where diets and weight loss are constantly discussed and we are overwhelmed by pictures of underweight models and photoshopped images. This is especially true in Western cultures where there is the idea that a slim body shape is synonymous with a variety of things such as power, beauty, success etc. (Strahan, Wilson, Cressman, & Buote, 2006).
Where a slim body is seen as desirable, gaining weight can be considered shameful, and so people can link a reduction of food intake with being more attractive to the group. Therefore, when people have the desire to eat more, they feel ashamed, which consequently stops them from performing this basic survival function.
The presence of positive reinforcement, i.e. being rewarded for doing a certain action, can also serve to encourage this behaviour (Pearson, Wonderlich, & Smith, 2015). This reward is both expressed by the individual through the happiness they feel as they realise that they are losing weight, and the group through their positive comments on the individual’s appearance and loss of weight.
Over time, the action of restricting food intake becomes reinforcing, due to its association with weight loss and the subsequent rewards (Farmer, Nash, & Field, 2001). This behaviour can then be transformed into a habit through the presence of operant conditioning, or, where a behaviour is learnt depending on its consequences (via reward or a punishment). This is because once the behaviour is acquired, through an association with reward, the behaviour can become insensitive to it. Thus, in relation to eating disorders, people become so used to restricting their food intake that they no longer look for the rewards in doing this.
Shame may be evolutionary, but that doesn’t mean it is helpful
Whilst research may suggest that shame is an evolutionary emotion that evolved socially to aid in our survival, this does not necessarily mean that it is always a helpful emotion. If the emphasis is put on the wrong ideas in society, and these are then linked to shame, people can associate shame with important functions that can lead to very negative consequences.
Image credit: Verne Ho via Unsplash