Cross-cultural invariances in the architecture of shame

Daniel Sznycer, Dimitris Xygalatas, Elizabeth Agey, Sarah Alami, Xiao Fen An, Kristina I. Ananyeva, Quentin D. Atkinson, Bernardo R. Broitman, Thomas J. Conte, Carola Flores, Shintaro Fukushima, Hidefumi Hitokoto, Alexander N. Kharitonov, Charity N. Onyishi, Ike E. Onyishi, Pedro P. Romero, Joshua M. Schrock, J. Josh Snodgrass, Lawrence S. Sugiyama, Kosuke TakemuraCathryn Townsend, Jin Ying Zhuang, C. Athena Aktipis, Lee Cronk, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


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 thewillingness of other groupmembers 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9702-9707
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number39
StatePublished - 25 Sep 2018


  • Cognition
  • Cooperation
  • Culture
  • Emotion
  • Evolutionary psychology


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