reduces prejudice, Eller says. As people get to know members
of an outside group, they begin to care more about how they’re
perceived by them, increasing the likelihood that they’ll become
embarrassed in awkward situations. When it comes to bridging
social differences, in other words, a little embarrassment may go
a long way.
Embarrassment does have a dark side, however. “On first blush,
embarrassment may seem like a very benign emotion. But as
you start to explore the motivational effects that embarrassment
has, there are substantial real-world consequences — even
people risking their health or their lives,” says Harris.
Case in point: shopping for condoms. Researchers at
Duke University found that buying condoms often elicits
embarrassment, potentially putting people at risk of sexually
transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies if they’re too
mortified to take the prophylactics through the checkout lane
(Psychology, Health & Medicine, 2006). That’s just one of many
examples of embarrassment affecting our well-being. Men may
fail to get prostate exams, women could skip mammograms,
seniors may avoid using hearing aids, and people of all stripes
might fail to mention awkward symptoms or avoid the doctor
“Fear of embarrassment causes people to behave in really
irrational ways,” says Harris. “Understanding more about the
emotion itself can help people decide when they should think
twice about embarrassment preventing them from engaging in
Unfortunately, she adds, it’s not clear how best to help
people deal with the emotion. For some people, it can become
crippling — not just in a health-care setting, but in other social
situations as well, from making new friends to going on dates.
“We don’t have good ways of telling people how they can cope
with their embarrassment,” she says.
The good news, though, is that others may not judge us
as severely as we judge ourselves. Kenneth Savitsky, PhD, at
Williams College, and colleagues asked volunteers to imagine a
social mishap or public failure, such as bumping into classmates
at the mall while carrying a bag from a low-status store, or
forgetting to check out a library book, thereby setting off an
alarm. They also embarrassed subjects publicly by describing
them in an unflattering way to an observer. In all cases, the
researchers found that observers judged people much less
harshly than the embarrassed people expected (Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 2001).
So, the next time you trip on the sidewalk, forget an
acquaintance’s name or realize your fly has been down all day,
take a deep breath and try to shake it off. Your ruby-red cheeks
and nervous smile may be broadcasting your best traits. n
Kirsten Weir is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.
The lesser-known signs of mortification
Video: It’s not
just your red
face that gives
Watch Dr. Christine Harris
discuss some subtle
signs of embarrassment.