Box 7-1: Through a Glass, Darwinian

The Evolutionary Origins of Pride and Shame

The signals associated with dominant status and subordinate status show numerous, structural similarities across diverse species. The function of submissive appeasement signals is to turn off the aggressive behavior of a threatening conspecific. In terms of maintaining social order it can be argued that the submissive display is the most important of all signals. When encountering a higher-ranking individual, subordinates avert their gaze and lower their heads and bodies. Dominant individuals display an erect posture and threaten subordinates with an unrelenting stare. Moreover, the dominants have a relaxed nonchalance and confidence in their bearing, in marked contrast to the subordinates, who appear nervous and fidgety. These patterns hold true for great apes, Old World monkeys and wolves. Darwin (1872) noted that expressions of pride and shame in humans parallel the signals for dominance and submission displayed by other species. The behavioral concomitants associated with a subjective experience of pride can be viewed as spontaneous and largely unconscious signals indicating high rank. Conversely, the subjective experience of shame results in spontaneous, involuntary signals of submission which function to de-escalate conflict.

Weisfeld (1999) makes a compelling argument that the terms shame and pride can be used to subsume a plethora of divergent psychological constructs such as self-esteem, guilt, prestige striving, success striving, social comparison, approval motivation, prosocial behavior and a multitude of others. These constructs differ from each other mainly in the particulars of the situations in which they are manifested but all are part of essentially the same behavioral system. The failure of psychology to incorporate these patterns of behavior into a comprehensive biologically meaningful system has led to innumerable erroneous judgments. For example, pride and shame were considered by many psychologists to be “learned motives” which is equivalent to saying that hunger is a “learned motive”.

The types of evidence needed to demonstrate that a particular behavior is an evolved adaptation, as proposed by Darwin (1872), clearly exist for pride and shame. The behaviors exist throughout the species. The emotions of pride and shame are present in every human culture (Edelmann, 1990). They have an invariant developmental timetable, developing around the ages of two or three (Weisfeld, 1999). Pride and shame have distinct stereotypical display structures. An erect, expansive, relaxed carriage characterizes pride. Proud people make direct eye contact in conversation. Shameful individuals avert their gaze and lower their heads. They may also display a nervous smile or display facial blushing. Pride and shame appear to be mediated at the proximate physiological level by an area of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex (Carlson, 1998). Damage to this area appears to remove a person’s capacity for pride and shame. Levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin and the hormone, testosterone are positively correlated with feelings of pride (dominance) and negatively correlated with feelings of shame (submission) (Masters & McGuire, 1994; Mazur, 1983). Finally, similar patterns of behavior and similar adaptive outcomes occur in other species. This phylogenetic evidence is particularly compelling in making a case for pride and shame being evolved adaptations.

In humans, the old hierarchical system underlies recently evolved propensities for reciprocal altruism and an even more recently evolved language capacity that allows social exchange to occur in a very abstract and symbolic fashion. Verbal threats, apologies, and promises are used to maintain equity in a system of reciprocal altruism (Trivers, 1971). The basic drives that give impetus to this complex social system are provided by emotional states derived from hierarchical evolution. Dominance (pride) is experienced as a pleasant emotion we seek to obtain (positive reinforcement) and submission (shame) is experienced as aversive state we seek to avoid (negative reinforcement). Thus when we succeed in obtaining material resources or win a prized mating partner we experience pride. Conversely, when we lose out in a competition for resources or are rejected by someone we value as a mating partner we experience shame.