This set of experiments shows that in 15 traditional small-scale societies there is an extraordinarily close correspondence between (i) the intensity of shame felt if one exhibited specific acts or traits and (ii) the magnitude of devaluation expressed in response to those acts or traits by local audiences, and even foreign audiences. Three important and widely acknowledged sources of cultural variation between communities—geographic proximity, linguistic similarity, and religious similarity—all failed to account for the strength of between-community correlations in the shame–devaluation link. This supplies a parallel line of evidence that shame is a universal system, part of our species’ cooperative biology, rather than a product of cultural evolution.Abstract
Human foragers are obligately group-living, and their high dependence on mutual aid is believed to have characterized our species’ social evolution. 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. With such a map, an individual can avoid socially costly behaviors by anticipating how much audience devaluation a potential action (e.g., stealing) would cause and weigh this against the action’s direct payoff (e.g., acquiring). The shame system manifests all of the functional properties required to solve this adaptive problem, with the aversive intensity of shame encoding the social cost. Previous data from three Western(ized) societies indicated that the shame evoked when the individual anticipates committing various acts closely tracks the magnitude of devaluation expressed by audiences in response to those acts. Here we report data supporting the broader claim that shame is a basic part of human biology. We conducted an experiment among 899 participants in 15 small-scale communities scattered around the world. Despite widely varying languages, cultures, and subsistence modes, shame in each community closely tracked the devaluation of local audiences (mean r = +0.84). The fact that the same pattern is encountered in such mutually remote communities suggests that shame’s match to audience devaluation is a design feature crafted by selection and not a product of cultural contact or convergent cultural evolution.