The Pathologies of Cultures of Honor and Shame

The dark side of pride: Shameful with little honor

This post by Gad Saad Ph.D. originally appeared at Psychology Today.

I was born and raised in Lebanon (see my earlier Psychology Today article wherein I describe some of my childhood experiences in war-torn Beirut). A defining ethos of Middle Eastern society is the so-called culture of honor and shame. A central tenet of such a worldview is that one must do everything to maintain one’s honor and accordingly to avoid public shame. Sounds good so far right? In reality, this cultural orientation leads to deeply problematic behaviors both at the individual and societal levels. Let me begin with a personal experience. I am recounting here a conversation that I had more than two decades ago with an older male family member (I’ll refrain from providing any additional details as to protect his anonymity). Here is the general gist of our baffling chat:

Family member: Those ancient Greeks, those Christians, they were real anti-Semites.

Me: I don’t mean to correct you but the Greeks in question were not Christian.

Family member: What are you talking about? Of course, they were. Greeks are Christians.

Me: Yes. They are Christians today. But the time period in which the ancient Greeks lived is labeled BC, which stands for “Before Christ.” In other words, by definition the era in which they existed is labeled in a manner that recognizes that they were not Christian.

Family member: [realizing that the weight of evidence is now fully against him] Yes, yes. So I was right. They were not Christians. That’s what I said, not you.

Pause for a minute and process this exchange. The person in question could not accept that he had lost an argument to a younger and hence “lower-ranked” individual. His honor had been damaged. He had to protect himself against the apparent shame that such a “defeat” might entail. Hence, in an extraordinarily dishonest yet painfully transparent ploy, he altered our respective positions in this debate. Apparently, I did not have the cognitive (memory) capacity to remember that I was the one arguing that they were not Christian whilst he was arguing that they were!

At the societal level, this desire to maintain one’s honor and hence avoid shame is intimately linked to the control of women’s sexuality (hence the incidence of honor killings in those regions of the world). It is also at the root of why individuals, groups, if not nations seldom if ever publicly admit to wrongdoings. Turkish citizens who write about the Armenian genocide, in which roughly 1.5 million people were exterminated, could land in hot legal waters. After all, to admit to this dreadful historical event is an attack on Turkish honor.

In the West, critical self-analysis is a laudable quality. This is precisely why psychoanalysis was historically so well received among Western intelligentsia. On the other hand, the notion that one should open up to a “stranger” (the therapist) about one’s fears, insecurities, and mental frailties is anathema to the Middle Eastern ethos. This is a sign of shameful weakness and it is generally despised. Another important feature of self-insight is recognizing when you’ve made an error and accordingly apologizing for it. Regrettably, in cultures of honor and shame, apologies are viewed as shame inducing, and as such are to be avoided if possible (see my earlier Psychology Today article on what constitutes an effective apology). I know of individuals who have made the conscious decision to turn their backs on their own offspring rather than to merely apologize for specific wrongdoings. Pride is indeed the mother of all deadly sins!

Well-adjusted individuals and confident cultures are sufficiently self-assured to recognize their errors. Those with true honor have no shame in owning up to their mistakes, and accordingly of taking the necessary steps to remedy the situation. This is true strength.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Gad Saad is a Lebanese-Canadian evolutionary behavioural scientist at the John Molson School of Business (Concordia University, Canada) who is known for applying evolutionary psychology to marketing and consumer behaviour. He holds the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioural Sciences and Darwinian Consumption and has a blog at Psychology Today titled Homo Consumericus. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter (@GadSaad).

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