Wednesday, October 19, 2011

There's nothing wrong with turning red: The social functions of embarrassment

Embarrassment is embarrassing. The act of blushing, for example, can itself be more traumatic than whatever triggered it, prompting some to resort to blush-reducing surgery. Even if you're not a blusher, embarrassment is often hard to hide - it makes itself known in nervous laughter, sweaty palms, averted eyes, and other involuntary responses. Most of us will do whatever we can to avoid this awkward experience. But research suggests that showing embarrassment is nothing to be ashamed of, and in certain ways it might even serve us well.

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
Part of what makes embarrassment so embarrassing is the fact that it's a dead giveaway of a private internal state. Feelings we would rather not display for all to see become readily apparent. But sometimes being a little transparent may not be such a bad thing. Building on the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, and on evolutionary accounts of the importance of signaling and detecting social intentions, Feinberg, Willer, and Keltner (2011) argue that embarrassment reveals that a person cares about others and values relationships. In other words, it's a way of saying, "I feel bad for messing up, and I want to do better next time because this relationship matters to me." (aka, "I'm not a sociopath").

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. 
In sum, the researchers found support for their hypothesis that embarrassment signals prosociality. Embarrassment, they say, is "not a sign of social disorder, but a display that helps restore fluid social interaction where it has gone awry."

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.

Co-author Keltner
Is embarrassment fakeable? The authors argue that it should be difficult to fake, since certain aspects of the display, like the blush, happen spontaneously and involuntarily. However, some people may be adept at feigning embarrassment (such as the trained confederates used in one of the studies), and may be able to use this ability to their advantage. But for those of you contemplating teaching yourself to show more rather than less embarrassment, the paper's first author advises: Better just to be yourself.

The Article:

Feinberg M, Willer R, & Keltner D (2011). Flustered and faithful: Embarrassment as a signal of prosociality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology PMID: 21928915


  1. Another interesting facet of human development. I agree that people who spontaneously show embarrassment seem more sensitive and 'human' than people who aren't ever flustered by anything.

  2. I think this gives embarrassment too much credit. Sure, it likely signals prosociality more than a "social disorder", but can't prosociality be a distraction to our own true interests?

    How big were the effects? Does embarrassment trick everybody?

  3. Thanks for the comments! I agree that showing vulnerability can be humanizing. And yes, at times prosociality may be in conflict with our own interests, but I think that's why people prefer to interact with those who seem prosocial - some degree of self-sacrifice is needed for relationships and groups to function. But maybe I'm misunderstanding your larger point, which seems to be more about the importance of following our authentic desires rather than only seeking others' approval.

    As for the effect sizes, it may be helpful to look at the actual paper for those since they vary from study to study - I'm happy to send you a copy if you're unable to access it online.

    I asked the first author about the question of whether everyone perceives prosociality in embarrassment displays and he said that they did not find any moderators, but it's possible that certain people are more attuned than others. Prosocial individuals, for example, should be more likely to recognize other prosocial people.