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Shame broadcasts social norms: An experimental investigation of what people learn from others' shame
Divergent views about shame's role in social life exist, with some scholarship concluding that shame can undermine social cohesion. We argue that this conclusion is problematic because it overlooks the effects of shame in the larger social context. We address this issue by identifying the inter-individual effects of shame. We propose that shame facilitates norm acquisition—people infer the content of group norms from others' shame. We further propose that observing others' shame promotes norm-conforming behavior—upon witnessing someone feel shame about a behavior, observers adjust their own behavior to align with inferred normative standards. We test and find support for these predictions in four experiments. We manipulate whether someone expresses shame, no specific emotion, or other discrete emotions (e.g., sadness, anger, embarrassment) in response to their behavior. We then assess people's inferences about a group's norms regarding the behavior and people's likelihood of engaging in the behavior.