The Blushing Brain

This post was first published in 2006 on the Alphapsy blog.

Moral philosophers have long made the distinguo between guilt (the awareness of doing something intrinsically wrong) and shame (the awareness that your behavior is an object of laughter and spite from others). A recent neuroimaging study shows how this dissociation influences the way our prefrontal cortex processes social and moral events. Brain areas involved are often observed in tasks investigating false-belief tasks and Theory of Mind, which makes this study doubly interesting.

According to the christian myth, Humans discovered guilt and shame at the same time: when they incurred God’s wrath after eating the apple, they knew at once that they were indecently naked. Moral Psychology shows that these two feelings are in fact dissociable. Picture shows Adam and Eve expelled from Eden, by Masaccio, Capella Brancacci.

Masaccio, The Expulsion (Source: Wikipedia)

A true victorian, Charles Darwin thought that shame, and the characteristic blushing stigma that goes with it, were uniquely human moral adaptations (see The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, chap.3). Moral philosophers in the naturalist trend, such as Allan Gibbard, extended this view by adding guilt as the second building block of our moral-emotional repertoire. Why did Evolution took care to provide us with such dismal feelings, the rest of the animal kingdom seemingly spared?

Humans are extraordinarily cooperative animals (compared to other species) and at least some of this cooperation seems to be promoted and fostered by moral feelings; so it makes evolutionary sense to assume that moral feelings such as guilt and shame are somewhat adapted to sustain cooperation. But we also learn from evolutionary modeling that cooperation can fail, particularly when would-be cooperators cannot trust one another, or when unskilled or weak cooperators are chosen. Good cooperators tend to work with other good cooperators: in this way their investment can pay back. The overall result is that sustainable cooperation cries for honest and reliable ways for individuals to signal that they are willing to cooperate honestly with others, and that they’re good at it. Costly, publicly-displayed and involuntary emotions can be such signals.

In this view, guilt’s function is to make you feel (in a costly and mandatory manner, that makes this emotion an honest signal of your natural propension to cooperate) that you acted like a poor cooperator. Shame, on the other hand, serves to remind you that you did something that, while unharmful to others, makes you look like a very poor cooperator (because you’re an unhealthy, resourceless, low-ranking individual, whatever). Actions that induce guilt may also provoke shame, but not necessarily so (and the reverse is also true). Guilt promotes cooperation regardless of cooperation being noticed or not, while shame discourages displaying your flaws and weaknesses in front of potential associates.

Back to the fMRI data: you would expect from this sketchy theory of guilt and shame that shame- and guilt- activated brain areas overlap to a certain extent, since most guilty acts provoke shame, and shameful actions can also be guilty. But guilt-activated brain areas, contrary to shame-activated ones, should not react to the social perception of the action (whether it is seen or not, how it is judged). Socially inappropriate behavior should induce shame only when it is witnessed. Shame should not be provoked by a socially inappropriate action without witnesses.

Summing up: if your fly is opened and your underwear is showing in front of a whole assembly, you’re ashamed , but you feel no guilt (inappropriate behavior+audience=shame). If you’re home alone when you remark that your underwear is showing, you do not blush unless you are an Anglican spinster (inappropriate behavior w/o audience=nothing). If you just killed the one you love, you feel guilt even if no one saw you do so and you do not expect anyone to suspect you (unacceptable behavior with or without witness=guilt). No I’d better let you deal with the murder before you find that while killing your s.o., you inadvertently let your fly opened.

The team of neuroscientists led by Elizabeth Finger and James Blair found activations coherent with these remarkably specific predictions. Second-person narratives of neutral, morally unacceptable and socially inappropriate behaviors were presented to the subjects; for each condition, the behavior could be witnessed or not. While the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex was involved in the perception of morally unacceptable behavior regardless of the presence or absence of audience, it was activated by inappropriate behavior if and only if it had witnesses.

Other areas are activated by moral and, to a lesser extent, social transgressions vs. neutral behaviors, and some of these are known to be involved in Theory of Mind tasks. What is puzzling is that many of these ToM areas do not react to the presence or absence of an audience, which is puzzling since processing others’ mental states are supposedly what ToM is about. ToM-associated activations do not overlap at all with audience-related activations. I don’t know enough about the neuroscience of ToM to solve this riddle. A guess, anyone?


Alphapsy comments on this post:

1. On Thursday 2 November 2006 by nicolas

From an evolutionary point of view, I do not understand why shame and guilt should differ concerning the effect of an audience. In both case, what matters is what others may think. Hence either the mechanism reacts only when others are present (in order to preserve your value as a good or a reliable cooperator) or its activation when you are alone is a by-product.

2. On Thursday 2 November 2006 by olivier

Nicolas: “from an evolutionary point of view, what matters is what others may think”

I disagree. If everyone knows that you’re capable of feeling very strong guilt if you do something wrong, even though they do not know that you did it, they will be more likely to cooperate with you. But that supposes that this strong emotion compels you to feel bad even when you no that there is no one watching you. Evolution can favor strong and costly emotions that plague you when you act against them, provided they are visible, since being equipped with such an emotion is a honest signal that you are not likely to defect.

3. On Thursday 2 November 2006 by nicolas

I agree with you. I was wondering why shame is not concerned by this reasoning.

4. On Thursday 2 November 2006 by alberto

Maybe the function of shame is just being the equivalent of physical pain for social matters: you feel that your reputation is threatened and it hurts, while guilt is honest signaling. Also, an important point often made in philosophy is that shame is global, attached to the whole person (i.e. because they saw you naked, you feel bad about yourself globably) while guilt is very specific (i.e. you became obsessed by the idea ” I shouldn’t have done THAT”, not “I am so bad”). What do you think about that? Do you know a related point in the psychological literature?

5. On Friday 3 November 2006 by olivier

I concur with Alberto on the main point.

On the fact that you feel guilty about your actions, but ashamed of yourself, it is coherent with the hypothesis that shame is about presenting yourself as a good cooperator overall (which does not include moral qualities only, but also health, wits, etc.), while guilt is about effective cooperation.

6. On Friday 3 November 2006 by nicolas

There’s a misunderstanding here. Again, I like very much Gibbard’s idea. But I do not undesrtand why preserving a global trait leads to the activation of emotions only if people are present and preserving yourself on a particular action leads to the activation of emotions wheter or not people are present.

7. On Friday 3 November 2006 by Florian

I think we can point a great difference between shame and guilt, as they have been described in this post : as guilt is a static feeling (it has for only object the pain of others), shame is more “modulatable” (I don’t know an english word to express this). You can’t predict the situations that will generate shame – as its objects can greatly vary from one culture to another. You can tell that (almost) universally, guilt will occur when you kill someone (except in justifiable situations) – but you can’t say so about being naked in front of an audience provoking shame (because there can be culture where being naked is not socially judged as ashaming).
By the way, Darwin made the difference between the two feelings, but emphasized their cooperation in the making of moral value of each civilisation. Have a peek at “The Descent of Man” for this.

8. On Friday 3 November 2006 by Florian

By the way, my previous commentary was intended to answer Nicolas : the use of having two feelings is in this case to have a static base (guilt) and a variable one (shame) that can adapt itself to different social environments and needs.

9. On Friday 3 November 2006 by nicolas

“You can tell that (almost) universally, guilt will occur when you kill someone (except in justifiable situations).”
I disagree with this statement. I’m sure we can discover plenty of cases in anthropological litterature where people feel guilt for non universal reason, such as having broken a particular taboo.

10. On Friday 3 November 2006 by olivier

Nicolas: “There’s a misunderstanding here. Again, I like very much Gibbard’s idea. But I do not undesrtand why preserving a global trait leads to the activation of emotions only if people are present and preserving yourself on a particular action leads to the activation of emotions wheter or not people are present.”

I do not accept that either: the fact that shame is publicity-sensitive whereas guilt is not is unrelated to the fact that shame applies to a whole person, while guilt applies to an act (nor did Alberto or I pretend that these facts are related). So we agree.

11. On Friday 3 November 2006 by olivier

To Florian: I participate in Nicolas’ disagreement; your claim that guilt-situations are everywhere the same, while shame-situations are culturally plastic, seems completely ungrounded. But thank you for the darwinian reference.

12. On Tuesday 7 November 2006 by Sandy G

Olivier, Nicolos,

I guess it is reasonable to restrict the application of costly-honest-signal-theory-of-emotions-evolution with regard to co-operation signaling to Guilt alone. Guilt, being involuntarily displayed, being costly to individual and displayed in all situation whether due to acts of commission or omission, honestly signals the desire/motivation of the cooperator to behave responsibly and meet cooperation commitments.

However, the evolution of shame cannot be attributed to the same coo-operation signaling mechanism (we already have guilt for that). Like all other emotions, Shame is also a honest and costly signal- this time of our willingness to conform. Shame juts signals our acceptance of social mores and hierarchies etc and has more to do with signaling conformism and solidarity to the clan, than with a propensity toward co-operation.

In EEA, it made reasonable sense to conform to the group/ leader and to detect such conformism.

13. On Tuesday 7 November 2006 by Olivier

Hello Sandy,

I accept your correction, and I would go even further: shame need not be a signalling mechanism at all. In an environment of evolutionary adaptation where cooperation is stabilised through guilt, people choose the best parteners to fotrm the best coalitions; it is in everyone’s interest to be a reliable and estimated partner. Hence, a disagreable emotion that signals me that I am giving the impression of being a bad cooperator (because I look diseased, or poor, or stupid), is adaptive for me. It benefits to the individual regardless of its signalling power.

14. On Monday 13 November 2006 by Daniel

Ask anyone with social phobia: it is possible to feel ashamed without an audience. But maybe you could say, that in those cases an audience is imagined subconsciously.

15. On Tuesday 14 November 2006 by olivier

I agree, I often get that kind of feeling; but it’s always in cases when I think back on social occasions when I did or say something inappropriate that I regret. Would you agree with me to say that this feeling is delayed shame with a social situation as triggering stimuli?

16. On Tuesday 14 November 2006 by Aniko

To believe in an all-mighty god who sees everything, or in a bunch of spirits and ancestors, can be a good way of having a constant audiance.
” Theory of Mind-associated activations do not overlap at all with audience-related activations.” I find this really great. I guess I do not understand fully what it meens, but here is an idea : it could be in relation with our capacity to have inner conversations with people who are not present, imaginig what they would say, or with gods… It can be very useful to have the ToM-kit working even if there is nobody around.

17. On Tuesday 14 November 2006 by olivier

Hey Aniko! It’s good to hear from you. I was saying that brain activations were not the same for reading about a behavior with an audience are not the same as brain activations found in ToM tasks. If I understand you well, you infer that this means that people do not need an actual or a real audience to feel judged by entities. That’s a very nice idea.

A way to test it would be the following: you predict that people’s propensity to feel shame regardless of the presence or absence of an actual human audience would be greatly enhanced if they believe in supernatural entities, compared to if they were atheists.

We could do the experiment, you in Bali, I in Paris. e-mail me.

18. On Wednesday 15 November 2006 by David Harmon

Typo note: At the start of the fifth paragraph, beginning “In this view, shame’s function is to…”, the context suggests that you meant to say “guilt”. (But do you feel ashamed of your error? ;-) )

I like this idea, and find it quite reasonable, even before the neurological evidence.

To address nicolas’ argument, the point seems to be that the audience distinction is exactly the difference between the two. The difference can be seen in how we can trigger it in other people, with or without language.

Shame is about appearances and relations. In fact, it can be *induced* by someone denigrating your reputation, e.g. “You cad/slut…”. Non-verbally, it’s often triggered by mockery, scorn or condescension.

Guilt is based on behavior and self-knowledge — it’s induced by invoking a (perhaps new) relationship or offense, e.g., “you’re blocking that kid’s view”, or “while you were out having fun, I was cleaning up your mess.”. Non verbally, it’s invoked by looking hurt or put-upon.

Something like “I know what you were up to!” plays obviously on shame, but also tries to evoke guilt by opportunistically triggering memories.

19. On Wednesday 15 November 2006 by olivier

shame on me!
(I corrected the post)

20. On Wednesday 15 November 2006 by nicolas

Dear Sandy, Olivier and David,

I still do not understand why we need an audience to experience shame but not guilt. Olivier wrote : “It [shame] benefits to the individual regardless of its signalling power.”
Therefore, shame would need less audience than guilt. Blair’s experiment shows exactly the contrary.

21. On Wednesday 15 November 2006 by olivier

An analogy: an alarm is triggered by the presence of a burgler. Its main function is not to be heard by the burglar (even though it can prove beneficial). But the presence of a burglar is nevertheless indispensable to trigger the alarm.

Likewise, the fact that shame’s principal function is not its being noticed is not to be confounded with the fact that shame would not need an audience to be triggered (in fact, it does).

S needs A to happen
does not mean that
the function of S is to be shown to A

22. On Friday 17 November 2006 by David Harmon

Olivier: I’d point out that “being noticed” is surely at least a *secondary* function of both emotions, given they are both infamously apparent. (“I know that look… what did you do?”)

Visible emotions in general aren’t *universally* considered positive, but there are an awful lot of societies that do consider it a good thing, in the interests of open communication, and trustworthiness. I’d venture to say that even in societies which expect people to hide their emotions, the same principle is being “honored in the breach”. It’s just that those societies consider communication on that level to be weak, manipulative, or just failing of local protocol. (For that last case, consider the upper-class British, with their famed “stiff upper lip”, contrasted to their elaborately sarcastic, ironic, or “theatrical” responses.)

23. On Friday 17 November 2006 by olivier

I concur with you on the whole – but you make me thanks the heavens I’m not british (chill)! ;o)

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