A few years ago I was a GSI (the Berkeley equivalent of a TA) for a large Introductory Social Psychology course. On the first day, the professor asked the GSIs to introduce ourselves to the packed lecture hall. As I was finishing my intro, I realized that I had just repeated something I had already said, and I felt a blush creeping in. "And that," the professor announced, "is a perfect illustration of the blush response." Then, of course, my face turned bright red. "But it's okay," he added, "it just means she's not a sociopath."
|Maybe more shame than embarrassment|
In five studies, the researchers tested the hypothesis that people who feel and display more embarrassment will not only behave in a more trustworthy and prosocial manner, but will also elicit more trust and cooperation from others. Here are some highlights from their findings:
- Participants who displayed more embarrassment when describing an embarrassing moment also gave responses to a series of hypothetical resource distribution scenarios that revealed they were less self-interested. They also gave more raffle tickets to an anonymous receiver as part of a dictator game. Participants who felt more embarrassed in response to a series of hypothetical faux pas scenarios reported greater altruism (e.g., "I go out of my way to help others if I can") and were also more generous.
- Those who displayed high (vs. low) levels of embarrassment, for equally embarrassing stories, were judged by other participants to be more prosocial (e.g., more cooperative and trustworthy, and less selfish and manipulative). Still photos showing embarrassment (vs. pride) were also rated as more prosocial, and participants reported a greater desire to affiliate (e.g., share a study group) with the embarrassed individuals compared to the proud ones.
- In a trust game, participants entrusted more of their resources (raffle tickets) to embarrassed targets, compared to targets with proud or neutral expressions. The same pattern of results occurred when participants interacted with a confederate who reacted to the experimenters' praise with embarrassment as opposed to pride.
- Importantly, embarrassed targets did not evoke greater compassion, nor did they appear weaker than other targets. Rather, they evoked more trust because they were judged to be more prosocial.
Interestingly, when considering potential directions for future research, they noted that embarrassment when interacting with a romantic interest may also be functional in that it signals fidelity and the potential to be a "high-quality mate." Consistent with this idea, in one study they found an association between embarrassment expression and support for monogamy. Perhaps, they suggest, online daters who look embarrassed in their profile pictures will be more popular.
Are there times when embarrassment does not signal prosociality? The authors suggest two possibilities: 1) when a transgression is particularly severe or egregious, and 2) when embarrassment is expressed in place of a more appropriate emotion in a given context. It is also important to consider that while embarrassment might have certain benefits, it may also have psychological and social costs, especially when it is chronic and severe.
Feinberg M, Willer R, & Keltner D (2011). Flustered and faithful: Embarrassment as a signal of prosociality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology PMID: 21928915