Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across cultures


We test the theory that shame evolved as a defense against being devalued by others. By hypothesis, shame is a neurocomputational program tailored by selection to orchestrate cognition, motivation, physiology, and behavior in the service of: (i) deterring the individual from making choices where the prospective costs of devaluation exceed the benefits, (ii) preventing negative information about the self from reaching others, and (iii) minimizing the adverse effects of devaluation when it occurs. Because the unnecessary activation of a defense is costly, the shame system should estimate the magnitude of the devaluative threat and use those estimates to cost-effectively calibrate its activation: Traits or actions that elicit more negative evaluations from others should elicit more shame. As predicted, shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation in the United States (r = .69), India (r = .79), and Israel (r = .67). Moreover, shame in each country strongly tracks devaluation in the others, suggesting that shame and devaluation are informed by a common species-wide logic of social valuation. The shame–devaluation link is also specific: Sadness and anxiety—emotions that coactivate with shame—fail to track devaluation. To our knowledge, this constitutes the first empirical demonstration of a close, specific match between shame and devaluation within and across cultures.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences