Friday, October 3, 2008

Psychology Today: Seven Deadly Sentiments

Psychology Today: Seven Deadly Sentiments
Evolutionary psychology helps us understand why we are ashamed of having forbidden thoughts that make us feel like lousy people. It tells us that these shameful feelings are hardwired—strategies that led to success on the Pleistocene savanna.

By: Kathleen McGowan, Ken Gordon

In our confessional culture, it is socially acceptable—even fashionable—to disclose your sexual predilections, your husband's problem with painkillers, your penchant for high colonics. Our hypertherapeutic society lets it all hang out.

But plenty of feelings remain in the closet. In the privacy of our own heads, we cringe with dread when we meet someone in a wheelchair, wish our aged relatives would hurry up and die, smirk over our friends' bad taste and think babies are ugly and annoying. Meanwhile, we assure ourselves—and one another—that we're really very nice people.

Evolutionary psychology holds that these shameful feelings are hardwired—strategies that led to success on the Pleistocene savanna. If that's so, then why are they so hard to admit to? "Given that these emotions are shaped by natural selection and are innate, or at least pretty deep, why do we expend so much effort in denying them?" asks Dylan Evans, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

It's a good question. The persistence of forbidden feelings fascinated Freud, and provided the raw material for his controversial theory of repression and the all-powerful unconscious. Both psychoanalysis and Catholic absolution are rooted in the idea that confession can strip taboo thoughts of their crippling power. Whether or not you believe in Freud (or the Virgin Mary), one thing is for sure: Our efforts to banish or explain away these unmentionables can't keep them from roaring back—and making us feel terrible as a result.

Acting on a nasty impulse may be cause for shame. But why feel so guilty about a feeling that remains a mere fancy, harmlessly stashed away in your brain? Evans theorizes that this guilt really stems from the fear of exposure. We're braced for discovery, even though we haven't really done anything. "If you're discovered doing something wrong, and you immediately feel terrible about it, the offense is mitigated," he says. "So you better be ready to display guilt if someone discovers you."

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