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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Sep 10. pii: 201805016. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1805016115. [Epub ahead of print]

Cross-cultural invariances in the architecture of shame.

Author information

Department of Psychology, University of Montreal, Montreal, QC H3C 3J7, Canada;
Center for Evolutionary Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9660.
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9660.
Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269.
Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-3210.
School of Psychology and Cognitive Science, East China Normal University, Shanghai, 200062, China.
Institute of Psychology, Russian Academy of Sciences, 129366 Moscow, Russia.
School of Psychology, University of Auckland, Auckland 1142, New Zealand.
Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, D-07745 Jena, Germany.
Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas Áridas, Facultad de Ciencias del Mar, Universidad Católica del Norte, Coquimbo 1781681, Chile.
Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08901.
School of Cultural and Creative Studies, Aoyama Gakuin University, 150-8366 Tokyo, Japan.
Faculty of Humanities, Fukuoka University, Fukuoka 814-0180, Japan.
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Nigeria, 41000 Nsukka, Nigeria.
Department of Psychology, University of Nigeria, 41000 Nsukka, Nigeria.
Department of Economics, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Pichincha 17-0901, Ecuador.
Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403.
Faculty of Economics, Shiga University, Shiga 522-8522, Japan.
Department of Psychology, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-1104.


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.


cognition; cooperation; culture; emotion; evolutionary psychology


Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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