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What is shame?

Shame is that feeling you get when you’re caught stealing from your grandma’s purse, when you sneeze all over your date’s face, when you let your incompetence show. Some have argued that shame happens when you violate a norm or when you blame a negative event on yourself. In general that’s true, except that shame also happens when you haven’t done anything wrong but simply believe that others believe that you have. Clinical psychologists find this emotion interesting because it can damage relationships. Unlike guilt, which typically leads to apologies and making up, shame can lead to concealment, blaming others, and aggression (Tangney, Wagner, Fletcher, & Gramzow, 1992; Wicker, Payne, & Morgan, 1983). For example, in his autobiography, the philosopher Rousseau relates how he blamed a cook when he was suspected of stealing something at an aristocrat’s house--he says he feared discovery more than death, and so he blamed the poor cook. But then the offender feels shame about her reaction, and the shame-aggression cycle begins again (Scheff, 1987).

Shame seems like an ugly emotion, in particular when compared to its nicer cousin, guilt. In fact, some researchers have argued that, because of its socially undesirable effects, shame is maladaptive. But it would be puzzling if that was so, because the awesome force of natural selection relentlessly weeds out features of the organism that are poorly designed. The concealment and evasions of shame may be undesirable to victims and onlookers, but they may be pitilessly functional to the individual who faces the prospect of being devalued.

There’s no puzzle, really. We evolved from ancestors who lived in small-scale groups and hunted and gathered for a living. This was a world without food storage or savings accounts for a rainy day. Thus, our ancestors’ survival and reproduction sensitively depended on others’ goodwill. Any negative information about an individual, if it spread into the community, would have led others to devalue the individual, causing them to help her less and harm her more. This evolutionarily recurrent challenge of avoiding devaluation would have crafted behavior-regulating mechanisms for limiting the spread of negative information and minimizing the costs of being devalued.

I have proposed that the emotion of shame is one such mechanism (Sznycer, Tooby, Cosmides, Porat, Shalvi, & Halperin, 2016). This evolutionary perspective can make sense of known facts about shame. For example, concealment is helpful to the offender, as it decreases the odds that others find out and devalue her. Or take aggression. Shame-driven aggression may have its own rationality: It can be a cost-effective tactic if the offender no longer receives benefits because of being valued but must instead bargain for those benefits by threatening harm. Today these responses may seem crass and out of proportion to the (sometimes) minor transgressions that trigger them—the offender might as well apologize and make things easier for everyone involved, including herself. But remember: These responses were shaped for an ancestral world: a world where others’ evaluations probably made a much bigger difference for one’s prospects in life.

Taking an evolutionary approach to shame leads to novel and specific predictions (whereas few predictions really follow from the theory that shame is maladaptive.) For example, if shame is a defense against being devalued, then the activation of shame should go up and down in lockstep with the magnitude of the devaluative threat, because under- and over-activation of a defense are costly mistakes. Indeed, my collaborators and I found that the activation of shame closely matches the devaluation of audiences, both local and foreign (Sznycer et al., 2016). Moreover, it is specifically shame that tracks audience devaluation: Other negative emotions that fire together with shame, such as sadness and anxiety, do not track others’ devaluation. I found this same pattern of shame tracking devaluation in several countries: the United States, Israel, and India.

I want to know whether these results are a quirk of Western cultures or reflect a genuine regularity about human nature. To find out, I am currently leading a team of researchers, including anthropologists with the Human Generosity Project, who are investigating shame through experiments in small-scale traditional societies. As they say, the first step in solving a problem is understanding it, and an evolutionary perspective seems a promising tool to understand shame.

I am also interested in understanding how shame relates to being in need and asking for help, topics of central interest to me and others who are part of the Human Generosity Project. When does being in need or asking for help lead to shame? The shame-devalution framework is a helpful model here. If being in need is a sign that one is in poor shape (however transiently), it’s no wonder that being in need sometimes gives rise to shame. Asking is a sensible way to get help when in need, but this too could lead to shame: Asking may reveal to others that you aren’t doing well, which in turn may lead them to divest from you. Asking may also impose on others, which may make them angry. Further, if the ones you ask for help deny you the help, onlookers may learn that those around you don’t value you much--then more people would now know about your poor prospects. These concerns about devaluation (conscious or not) may dictate when we ask for help, when we don’t, and when we might actually try to hide or deny needs.

Perhaps this evolutionary approach to the function of shame can lead to better solutions to minimize the damage that shame can do to relationships. Shame may be an ugly emotion because of its socially undesirable effects, but looking this ugly emotion right in the eye might have many benefits. If we understand how shame functions to protect individuals from being devalued by important people in their lives, we may be able to devise interventions to achieve those goals without the negative effects (like withdrawal and aggression) that sometimes come along with it.


And perhaps shame isn’t all bad, even for relationships and society. We are, after all, a highly social species, and shame is one of the most social of social emotions. Would it be a good thing if nobody cared about the social consequences of bad behavior and rule breaking? Probably not. So shame, like many aspects of human nature, is neither good nor bad. Shame is complicated, messy, but also exquisitely designed to track social devaluation.



Scheff, T. (1987). The shame-rage spiral: A case study of an interminable quarrel. In H. Lewis, The Role of Shame in Symptom Formation (pp, 109–149). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sznycer, D., Tooby, J., Cosmides, L., Porat, R., Shalvi, S., & Halperin, E. (2016). Shame closely tracks

the threat of devaluation by others, even across cultures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(10), 2625-2630.

Sznycer, D., Schniter, E., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2015). Regulatory adaptations for delivering information: the case of confession. Evolution and Human Behavior, 36(1), 44-51.

Sznycer, D., Takemura, K., Delton, A. W., Sato, K., Robertson, T., Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J.

(2012). Cross-cultural differences and similarities in proneness to shame: An adaptationist and ecological approach. Evolutionary Psychology, 10(2), 352-370.

Tangney, J. P., Wagner, P. E., Fletcher, C., & Gramzow, R. (1992). Shamed into anger? The relation of shame and guilt to anger and self-reported aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(4), 669–675.

Wicker, F. W., Payne, G. C., & Morgan, R. D. (1983). Participant descriptions of guilt and shame. Motivation and Emotion, 7(1), 25-39.

About the author

Daniel Sznycer is Assistant Director of the Human Generosity Project. He received his PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Daniel is an evolutionary psychologist conducting research on the psychology of sociality. He combines methods, theories, and concepts drawn from the cognitive sciences and evolutionary biology to explore and map the evolved design of social emotions and their underlying motivational systems. He has multiple lines of cross-cultural evidence on shame, pride, compassion, and envy, and their roles in altruism, cooperation, interdependence, social exclusion, and conflict.

Edited by Athena Aktipis