Shame in Two Cultures: Implications for Evolutionary Approaches

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
Daniel Fessler
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Cross-cultural comparisons can a) illuminate the manner in which cultures differentially highlight, ignore, and group various facets of emotional experience, and b) shed light on our evolved species-typical emotional architecture. In many societies, concern with shame is one of the principal factors regulating social behavior. Three studies conducted in Bengkulu (Indonesia) and California explored the nature and experience of shame in two disparate cultures. Study 1, perceived term use frequency, indicated that shame is more prominent in Bengkulu, a collectivistic culture, than in California, an individualistic culture. Study 2, comparing naturally occurring shame events (Bengkulu) with reports thereof (California), revealed that shame is associated with guilt-like accounts in California but not in Bengkulu, and subordinance events in Bengkulu but not in California; published reports suggest that the latter pattern is prominent worldwide. Study 3 mapped the semantic domain of shame using a synonym task; again, guilt was prominent in California, subordinance in Bengkulu. Because shame is overshadowed by guilt in individualistic cultures, and because these cultures downplay aversive emotions associated with subordinance, a fuller understanding of shame is best arrived at through the study of collectivistic cultures such as Bengkulu. After reviewing evolutionary theories on the origins and functions of shame, I evaluate these perspectives in light of facets of this emotion evident in Bengkulu and elsewhere. The available data are consistent with the proposition that shame evolved from a rank-related emotion and, while motivating prestige competition, cooperation, and conformity, nevertheless continues to play this role in contemporary humans.

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