(such as tripping or passing gas in public) also reported a
tendency to be more “prosocial” — that is, kinder and more
generous (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012).
And in fact, those easily embarrassed people proved to be more
generous in a lab experiment in which they were asked to share
raffle tickets with strangers.
In another facet of that study, Feinberg and his colleagues
found that revealing embarrassment offers a social benefit
as well. They exposed volunteers to an actor who expressed
either embarrassment or pride after a researcher publicly
praised his performance on a test. When the actor expressed
embarrassment, study participants found him more
trustworthy and wanted to affiliate with him more.
“Clearly, people don’t enjoy experiencing embarrassment,”
Feinberg says. “But in the bigger social picture, there’s a plus.”
The benefit of embarrassment, however, might depend on
who’s watching. Anja Eller, PhD, an associate professor of social
A complex emotion
Embarrassment is what’s known as a self-conscious emotion. While basic emotions
such as anger, surprise or fear tend to happen
automatically, without much cognitive processing,
the self-conscious emotions, including shame,
guilt and pride, are more complex. They require
self-reflection and self-evaluation.
Typically, a set of behaviors unfolds over time
when a person is embarrassed: A woman who
calls a new acquaintance by the wrong name, for
example, will likely gaze downward, suppress a
smile, turn her head away and then shift her gaze.
(Blushing is also common, but it’s not universal,
Harris says.) Behind the scenes, there’s a distinct
physiological pattern taking place. In emotions
such as anger and fear, both heart rate and blood
pressure spike. In embarrassment, Harris found,
these two measures spike initially — but soon
heart rate slows down again, while blood pressure
continues to rise (Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 2001). “That coupling might be a
unique signature to embarrassment,” she says.
Where does embarrassment arise in the
brain? Recently, Virginia Sturm, PhD, an assistant
professor of neurology at the University of
California, San Francisco, and colleagues tracked
down a bit of gray matter that appears to play
a major role in embarrassment. Sturm studied
patients with a form of frontotemporal dementia,
a degenerative brain disease that causes profound
changes in personality and behavior. Patients with
psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico,
has found that people are more likely to be embarrassed
when they err in front of members of their own social group.
People are less embarrassed when outsiders see them goof
up, especially when the outsiders are seen as lower in status,
she found (European Journal of Social Psychology, 2011). “We
identify with in-group members, and generally value their
opinions more than out-group members,” she says.
The finding may have practical implications for intergroup
relations. In most cases, Eller says, embarrassment is adaptive.
Expressing the emotion tends to repair social relations and elicit
forgiveness. And as Feinberg has shown, signs of sheepishness
may even advertise trustworthiness. On the other hand, failure
to experience or display much embarrassment to members of
another social group may harden prejudices and widen the gap
between “us” versus “them.”
However, increased contact between two social groups
the disease often say or do socially inappropriate
things without seeming to feel any humiliation.
She found that a brain region called the right
pregenual anterior cingulate cortex was smaller in
people who suffered from the disease.
That region seems to spawn embarrassment
in healthy people, too. Sturm found that healthy
control subjects who weren’t easily embarrassed
by watching videos of themselves singing the 1964
hit “My Girl” had a smaller pregenual anterior
cingulate cortex than healthy controls who were
more mortified by the performance.
Psychologists are quick to point out that there’s
a significant difference between shame and
embarrassment. “A lot of people intuitively think
there’s a connection, that embarrassment is a
weaker form of shame,” says June Tangney, PhD,
a psychologist at George Mason University. But
that seems not to be the case.
Shame, she’s found, is much more intense and
likely to be associated with moral transgressions.
And while most people feel shame in the company
of others, “solitary” shame is not uncommon,
she says. Embarrassment, on the other hand,
tends to stem from social slip-ups, and we
rarely experience it outside a social context.
Embarrassed folks are also more inclined to laugh
about an embarrassing incident. “When people
feel shame,” she says, “there’s no sense of humor
about it at all.”