Excerpt: 'Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge'
A bluestreak cleaner wrasse cleaning a blackbar triggerfish
Is Shame Necessary? by Jennifer Jaquet
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. 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.
The first hominids could keep track of cooperation and defection only by firsthand observation. Many animals use visual observations to decide whether to work with others. Reef fish in the Red Sea, for instance, watch wrasses clean other reef fish to determine whether or not they’re cooperative, as the biologist Redouan Bshary discovered. Bshary went scuba diving off Egypt’s coast to observe this symbiotic relationship. Bluestreak Cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus) eat parasites, along with dead or infected tissue, off reef fish in more than two thousand interactions a day, each of which can be considered an act of cooperation. Wrasses are tempted to eat more than just the parasites, but if the reef fish loses too much flesh in the deal, it will refuse to continue working with the wrasse. Reef fish approach wrasses that they see cooperating with their current clients and avoid the wrasses they see biting off more than they should.