Feelings of shame are universal in all cultures, and new research could explain why. Studies in the US, India, and Israel suggest that shame—like pain—evolved as a defense.

“The function of pain is to prevent us from damaging our own tissue,” says Daniel Sznycer, lead author of the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them.”

“Our ancestors lived in small, cooperative social groups that lived by hunting and gathering,” says John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara and a coauthor of the paper. “In this world, your life depended on others valuing you enough to give you and your children food, protection, and care.

“The more you are valued by the individuals with whom you live—as a cooperative partner, potential mate, skilled hunter, formidable ally, trustworthy friend, helpful relative, dangerous enemy—the more weight they will put on your welfare in making decisions. You will be helped more and harmed less.”

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