Oh no you
Embarrassment acts as a social glue that
can strengthen our relationships, but it
also has a dark side, research finds.
BY KIRSTEN WEIR
Fair warning: If you participate in a psychological experiment about embarrassment, you might find yourself squirming in your seat. One popular study
design, for instance, asks participants to sing aloud, and then
forces them to watch a video of themselves belting out the tune
sans musical accompaniment. Another clever study claimed to
employ eye-tracking software as volunteers gazed at photos.
Researchers led volunteers to believe they’d spent an inordinate
amount of time focusing on the crotch of a fellow in a Speedo.
Cue the sheepish looks.
Embarrassment may be painful for those who experience it,
but it’s a handy emotion to study, says Christine Harris, PhD, a
psychologist at the University of California, San Diego.
“Embarrassment is pretty easy to trigger, which speaks to
how powerful a force it is for almost all of us,” she says.
Powerful, but also puzzling. Why are we so quick to feel
an emotion that makes us so uncomfortable? What does a
tendency toward mortification mean? Psychologists’ research
reveals this complex sentiment comes with both pros and
cons. Embarrassment may repair social relationships and even
advertise positive character traits, but at the same time, that
sheepishness could lead you to make less-than-stellar decisions.
Why the red face?
Embarrassment has evolved in humans as a way to grease
our social interactions, Harris says. “Group living has been
important to us for a long time, and even if you don’t
intentionally want to violate a social norm, you sometimes
do. Embarrassment serves the function of immediately and
strongly displaying, ‘Oops, I didn’t mean to do that.’”
Recent research has expanded our understanding of
the social side of embarrassment. As a doctoral candidate,
Matthew Feinberg, PhD, now a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford
University, explored the social benefits of embarrassment with
University of California, Berkeley, social psychologists Robb
Willer, PhD, and Dacher Keltner, PhD. The researchers found
that people who tended to express more outward signs of
embarrassment while describing their embarrassing moments