They Joy of Embarrassment

Before humans learned to become reality TV stars and patent trolls our brains actually developed some fairly neat tricks. The latest evidence of our past mental prowess comes from a study that examines embarrassment as a social cue. It turns out that when you appear embarrassed after tripping in public, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

…The authors demonstrate that observers recognize the expression of embarrassment as a signal of prosociality and commitment to social relationships. In turn, observers respond with affiliative behaviors toward the signaler, including greater trust and desire to affiliate with the embarrassed individual. Five studies tested these hypotheses and ruled out alternative explanations. Study 1 demonstrated that individuals who are more embarrassable also reported greater prosociality and behaved more generously than their less embarrassable counterparts. Results of Studies 2–5 revealed that observers rated embarrassed targets as being more prosocial and less antisocial relative to targets who displayed either a different emotion or no emotion. In addition, observers were more willing to give resources and express a desire to affiliate with these targets.

There’s a simple evolutionary story that makes sense. Embarrassment tends to follow outcomes that affect social status within a group (can you remember the last time you felt embarrassed by yourself?), and therefore people who have a tendency to feel “embarrassed” will probably engage in more prosocial behavior and less rogue murderous pillaging. As as result, humans learn to interpret embarrassment as evidence of prosociality, and they begin behaving more generously toward embarrassed people. Picking up and sending the proper cues may not seem so useful in 2012, but try imagining yourself as foraging nomad without a developed language system who runs into a complete stranger in the forest.
Feinberg, M., Willer, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Flustered and faithful: Embarrassment as a signal of prosociality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (1), 81-97 DOI: 10.1037/a0025403

One Response to They Joy of Embarrassment

  1. John Tropea says:

    “Have you ever felt embarrassed by yourself”…I use that exact phrase to explain emergence…embarrassment is emergent from a social interplay

    In clay shirky’s words:

    “…aggregates exhibit novel properties…”

    “sociology is not just psychology applied to groups; individuals in group settings exhibit behaviours that no one could predict by studying single minds”

    “no one has ever been bashful or extroverted while sitting alone in their room, no one can be a social climber or a man of the people without reference to society, and these characteristics exist because groups are not just simple aggregations of individuals”

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