Is Shame Necessary?

Jacquet640 Jennifer Jacquet in Edge:

Financial executives received almost $20 billion in bonuses in 2008 amid a serious financial crisis and a $245 billion government bailout. In 2008, more than 3 million American homes went into foreclosure because of mortgage blunders those same executives helped facilitate. Citigroup proposed to buy a $50 million corporate jet in early 2009, shortly after receiving $45 billion in taxpayer funds. Days later, President Barack Obama took note in an Oval Office interview. About the jet, he said, “They should know better.” And the bonuses, he said, were “shameful.”

What is shame's purpose? Is shame still necessary? These are questions I'm asking myself. After all, it's not just bankers we have to worry about. Most social dilemmas exhibit a similar tension between individual and group interests. Energy, food, and water shortages, climate disruption, declining fisheries, increasing resistance to antibiotics, the threat of nuclear warfare—all can be characterized as tragedies of the commons, in which the choices of individuals conflict with the greater good.

Balancing group and self-interest has never been easy, yet human societies display a high level of cooperation. To attain that level, specialized traits had to evolve, including such emotions as shame.1 Shame is what is supposed to occur after an individual fails to cooperate with the group. Shame regulates social behavior and serves as a forewarning of punishment: conform or suffer the consequences. The earliest feelings of shame were likely over issues of waste management, greediness, and incompetence. Whereas guilt is evoked by an individual's standards, shame is the result of group standards. Therefore, shame, unlike guilt, is felt only in the context of other people.