(CNN)Shame has existed since the first humans walked the Earth, according to mathematician and journalist Cathy O'Neil. But lately its evolutionary function -- to encourage pro-social behavior by enforcing norms that help sustain societies -- has been hijacked by parties seeking profit and power, O'Neil contends.
Who's really to blame? Mathematician Cathy O'Neil puts shame in its place
Efforts to shift blame away from institutions and toward individuals sabotage shame's original mission, O'Neil explains in her new book, "The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation."
Instead of reinforcing fairness and justice to reengage people with their communities, shame "has been weaponized by corporations to profit and by institutions to maintain power." Usually, she said, "that's being done in a bullying, punching down shame kind of way."
By recognizing and confronting the "shame machine" wherever it operates, O'Neil said she hopes we can unite to "punch up" at the real sources of the problem.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What is shame?
Cathy O'Neil: Shame is a policing tool used to reinforce rules and taboos as way to promote a society's survival. When an individual's desires conflict with group expectations, shame can rein in behavior.
But it can be painful, and the damage can run deep, making us feel worthless and stripping us of our humanity. Shame packs a vicious punch.
CNN: Does shame have any positive function in societies?
O'Neil: Shame is a social mechanism. When it works, it looks a bit like persuasion with a soft hint of the potential for being outcast if you don't follow the rules. The idea is to discourage selfish action in favor of what the community needs.
For example, the Hopi Pueblo clown festival includes pulling rule-breaking villagers into the middle of the ceremony to shame them. Public humiliation calls them out for misdeeds in front of the entire village.