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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Forms and Functions of the Social Emotions

Sznycer, D., Sell, A., & Lieberman, D. (2021). 
Current Directions in Psychological Science. 


In engineering, form follows function. It is therefore difficult to understand an engineered object if one does not examine it in light of its function. Just as understanding the structure of a lock requires understanding the desire to secure valuables, understanding structures engineered by natural selection, including emotion systems, requires hypotheses about adaptive function. Social emotions reliably solved adaptive problems of human sociality. A central function of these emotions appears to be the recalibration of social evaluations in the minds of self and others. For example, the anger system functions to incentivize another individual to value your welfare more highly when you deem the current valuation insufficient; gratitude functions to consolidate a cooperative relationship with another individual when there are indications that the other values your welfare; shame functions to minimize the spread of discrediting information about yourself and the threat of being devalued by others; and pride functions to capitalize on opportunities to become more highly valued by others. Using the lens of social valuation, researchers are now mapping these and other social emotions at a rapid pace, finding striking regularities across industrial and small-scale societies and throughout history.

From the Shame portion

The behavioral repertoire of shame is broad. From the perspective of the disgraced or to-be-disgraced individual, a trait (e.g., incompetence) or course of action (e.g., theft) that fellow group members view negatively can be shielded from others’ censure at each of various junctures: imagination, decision making, action, information diffusion within the community, and audience reaction. Shame appears to have authority over devaluation-minimizing responses relevant to each of these junctures. For example, shame can lead people to turn away from courses of actions that might lead others to devalue them, to interrupt their execution of discrediting actions, to conceal and destroy reputationally damaging information about themselves, and to hide. When an audience finds discrediting information about the focal individual and condemns or attacks that individual, the shamed individual may apologize, signal submission, appease, cooperate, obfuscate, lie, shift the blame to others, or react with aggression. These behaviors are heterogeneous from a tactical standpoint; some even work at cross-purposes if mobilized concurrently. But each of these behaviors appears to have the strategic potential to limit the threat of devaluation in certain contexts, combinations, or sequences.

Such shame-inspired behaviors as hiding, scapegoating, and aggressing are undesirable from the standpoint of victims and third parties. This has led to the view that shame is an ugly and maladaptive emotion (Tangney et al., 1996). However, note that those behaviors can enhance the welfare of the focal individual, who is pressed to escape detection and minimize or counteract devaluation by others. Whereas the consequences of social devaluation are certainly ugly for the individual being devalued, the form-function approach suggests instead that shame is an elegantly engineered system that transmits bad news of the potential for devaluation to the array of counter-devaluation responses available to the focal individual.

Important data points to share with trainees.  A good refreshed for seasoned therapists.