We’ve all had it. That feeling of being deeply disappointed in yourself. That feeling of knowing that you’ve done something wrong, even though you might not know exactly what. I’m talking of course about the feeling of shame. But what is shame? Is it nothing but a chemical response our bodies tend to have towards “embarrassing” situations? And if so, how do our bodies decide between embarrassing and non-embarrassing situations? And what role does our social context play in determining our feelings of shame?
Like any feeling, shame has developed to increase our procreation chances. If we wouldn’t feel any shame, we might have never become the social creatures that we are. Imagine that you would be a caveman hunting with your fellow cavemen. While you’re sitting in the bush, you decide to attack a very angry looking bear, even though the leader of the group explicitly told you not to do so. If you wouldn’t feel bad – feel “ashamed” – about this situation afterwards, there would be nothing to prevent you from doing this “stupid” behavior again. In other words: there would be nothing withholding you from endangering you and your group members again. Sooner or later you would end up being banned from the tribe or dead.
This example might be a oversimplification of the actual workings of our “shame mechanism”, but it should do the job in explaining how our tendency to feel shame has come about. Millions and millions of years of evolution have weeded out those not feeling shame; ending up with a population in which (almost) anyone has the ability to feel shame.
However, while our ability to feel shame is biologically determined, the content of our feelings of shame – that is where we feel ashamed about - is for the biggest part socially determined. And the reason for that is simple: if the content of our feelings of shame wouldn’t be socially determined, they would always lack “environmental relevancy”. What do I mean that? Well – to return to the example of the cavemen – if we would be biologically “tuned” to experience shame whenever we let our fellow hunters down while chasing an angry looking bear, this would imply the requirement a great deal of likewise shame mechanisms to prevent us from doing anything shameful/harmful in life. And because our society is ever-changing – at least a faster pace than our biological makeup – we would always remain tuned to a historical environment; an environment not relevant in sifting the fit from the weak in today’s world. That’s why the ability to feel shame is biologically determined, but the instances that trigger our feelings of shame come about (mainly) through our social context.
There are, however, some aspects of life more important in determining one’s procreation chances than others. The most prominent of course being our sexual capabilities. This could explain why sex seems to take such a prominent position in the whole realm of of areas we could be ashamed about; sex related events simply tend to have a more profound physical effect on us than non-sex related events. This might be why people have the tendency to feel ashamed about their weight, looks, sexual experience, sexual orientation etc.: all of these have – or have had in the past – a significant effect in determining one’s procreation chances.
These are my thoughts on the issue; what are yours?