As a clinical psychologist, I collaborate with people facing problems that are sometimes practical but also of an emotional nature. Emotions evolved to motivate us, to “motion” us into action — and sometimes those emotions are involuntary, that is to say, not chosen. Some, are unwanted. Take shame, for example, one of many social emotions that allow us to navigate relationships.

The emotion of shame doesn’t garner as much research attention as do other painful emotions, but clinically, it undergirds many instances of depression and anxiety. My mentor, Albert Ellis saw shame as a driver of much emotional pain and devised “shame-attacking” exercises to rid us of all shame. He saw shame as a bug, not a feature of our cognitive software. The approach yielded mixed results, but today we have a better understanding of shame.1

A clue that shame has evolutionary roots is that it feels involuntary.2 Morality and a sense of shame served the needs of our place among kin and group. The inclusive tent for conscientiousness raised the possibility of falling short of our tribe’s expectations.

Understanding evolution helps us gain an “ancestral awareness,” to contrast the modern challenges that face us — mismatches between those natural mechanisms and the novel current environment. As a cognitive behavioral therapy practitioner for many years, this perspective fits into best practices because it aids us in understanding dysfunctional emotions and how to augment our thinking.

For example, many of us avoid potentially embarrassing adventures (to our long-term detriment), because of the risk of incurring scorn. Clinging to an “appropriate” facade feels natural but can also activate anxiety, “What if I look foolish? That would be horrible.” That’s a common premise entertained (sometimes semi-consciously) by anxious people. I’ve often seen versions of this phenomenon in a clinical setting, with consequent anxiety and depression.

Self-recrimination and depression can follow a self-described “shameful” performance. Anxiety often occurs in anticipation of one. In both cases, shame is at the root. A possible shameful event is looming in the future and we feel anxiety. A shameful event in the past and we feel depression.

We want to survive, mate, contribute to our group, offer resources, and command positive attention. Here, shame may be a trade-off between goals as a signal to oneself and as a signal to others, that we are trustworthy and well-meaning. An evolutionary perspective can help us keep conscientiousness while challenging crippling shame. 4

Shame may have helped us to maintain conscientious behavior, but our current self-messages such as, “I absolutely must be approved and loved by important allies” may trigger unwanted modern effects such as avoidance and isolation.

Shame seems to have two separate components. One, the corrective feedback for us by which to monitor social behavior. The other, the more troublesome one, is putting oneself down as an incompetent person. Huge difference! My job is to help clients keep the first while changing the second of those. And evolutionary thinking helps us do that.

Today, the entire world seems like our village. Social media can fool us into taking our reputations not just seriously, which is good, but too seriously, which is harmful. You see, for most of human history, our reputations would stratify us in the entirety of our social options. Our minds still read it that way. But a few screwups today do not have to sully our relationships to any hardened degree. Our long lives and multiple opportunities to connect with new people has never been greater.

Our ancestors did not have electronic social media, iPhones, police, air travel, cities, Tinder, vodka, running water, Starbucks, or delis. These may seem obvious, but its profundity gets clearer with a few thought experiments. Mismatch insights are revelatory in reframing our modern experiences. Not a cure — a perspective helping to distinguish emotional features from emotional bugs, and how the experience of shame can reflect both. Evolutionary context and purposes matter — and understanding ancestral mismatch can provide a ready rosetta stone.

An ancestral awareness can provide some perspective on our propensity to feel overly ashamed about our errors, either the ones we’ve made or the ones we’re endlessly committing—in our imaginings only.

Read the full Evolutionary Mismatch series:

  1. Introduction: Evolutionary Mismatch and What To Do About It by David Sloan Wilson
  2. Functional Frivolity: The Evolution and Development of the Human Brain Through Play by Aaron Blaisdell
  3. A Mother’s Mismatch: Why Cancer Has Deep Evolutionary Roots by Amy M. Boddy
  4. It’s Time To See the Light (Another Example of Evolutionary Mismatch) by Dan Pardi
  5. Generating Testable Hypotheses of Evolutionary Mismatch by Sudhindra Rao
  6. (Mis-) Communication in Medicine: A Preventive Way for Doctors to Preserve Effective Communication in Technologically-Evolved Healthcare Environments by Brent C. Pottenger
  7. The Darwinian Causes of Mental Illness by Eirik Garnas
  8. Is Cancer a Disease of Civilization? by Athena Aktipis
  9. The Potential Evolutionary Mismatches of Germicidal Ambient Lighting by Marcel Harmon
  10. Do We Sleep Better Than Our Ancestors? How Natural Selection and Modern Life Have Shaped Human Sleep by Charles Nunn and David Samson
  11. The Future of the Ancestral Health Movement by Hamilton M. Stapell
  12. Humans: Smart Enough to Create Processed Foods, Daft Enough to Eat Them by Ian Spreadbury
  13. Mismatch Between Our Biologically Evolved Educative Instincts and Culturally Evolved Schools by Peter Gray
  14. How to Eliminate Going to the Dentist by John Sorrentino
  15. Public Health and Evolutionary Mismatch: The Tragedy of Unnecessary Suffering and Death by George Diggs
  16. Is Shame a Bug or a Feature? An Applied Evolutionary Approach by Nando Pelusi
  17. The “Benefits,” Risks, and Costs of Routine Infant Circumcision by Stephanie Welch
  18. An Evolutionary Perspective on the Real Problem with Increased Screen Time by Glenn Geher
  19. Did Paleolithic People Suffer From Kidney Disease? by Lynda Frassetto
  20. The Physical Activity Mismatch: Can Evolutionary Perspectives Inform Exercise Recommendations? by James Steele


  1. Gilbert, P. (2003). Evolution, social roles, and differences in shame and guilt. Social Research: An International Quarterly of the Social Sciences 70, 1205-1230
  2. Gilbert, P., & McGuire, M. T. (1998). Shame, status, and social roles: Psychobiology and evolution. In P. Gilbert & B. Andrews (Eds.), Series in affective science. Shame: Interpersonal behavior, psychopathology, and culture (pp. 99-125). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
  3. Gilbert, P. (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 353-379.
  4. Pelusi, N. (2008) No shame on you. Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200801/neanderthink-no-shame-you

Published On: June 13, 2019

Nando Pelusi

Nando Pelusi

Nando Pelusi is the co-founder of Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society (AEPS), and maintains a private practice as a clinical psychologist in the heart of NYC—aka, Mismatch Central. He has worked for over 15 years with Albert Ellis, a founder of CBT. He also wrote the long-time column on applied evolutionary psychology Neanderthink, in Psychology Today.


  • John c Mckenna says:

    USA – unconditional self acceptance. I still like and accept myself even if I screw up in some way. This much better than self esteem- which often requires me to do well.

  • Stop Ucch Now says:

    Does Nando Pelusi have shame yet? After all, his wife Kaja Perina did try to help an unethical hypnotherapist cover up for what it had done, and you’ve gotta know that once she was complicit like that once, a lot of unethical psychology professionals of all types know that the editor of Psychology Today will be unethical for them, too. She can never stop at just one. If you go look at any cases you can find of unethical hypnotherapists online, other than the one I’m bringing to you, you’ll find what I found. Every case described was of a hypnotherapist raping a female patient. My particular case may be different, but Kaja made it that much harder for those victims to stop their unethical hypnotherapists. Since she’s editor of TP, she may have opened the floodgate for the dregs of psychology. Nando and Kaja ought to be ashamed. If they have any shred of humanity left, they will be. If they have any shred of humanity left, Kaja will stop this unethical hypnotherapist I’m dealing with immediately.

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