Embarrassment: Powerful and Puzzling
Most people have been there, embarrassed by such acts as being caught in a white lie, speaking out of turn, passing gas in public or finding you're the only one who wore a costume to a Halloween party.
We all try to avoid these small humiliations and embarrassments. But, painful as it is, embarrassment can come in handy. According to Mathew Feinberk, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford exploring the social benefits of embarrassment and his colleagues, expressing embarrassment can cause people to trust you and want to associate with you.
"In the bigger social picture," Feinberg says in this month's Monitor on Psychology, "there's a plus" to embarrassment.
In most cases, embarrassment tends to repair social relationships and make people more likely to forgive, say Anja Eller, PhD, an associate professor of social psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Showing embarrassment may increase a sense that you are trustworthy, while hiding it or failing to look embarrassed may increase prejudices.
But embarrassment does not have only positive social effects. Christine Harris, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that embarrassment can cause people to behave in irrational ways.
In one study conducted at Duke University, researchers found that people embarrassed by buying condoms potentially put themselves at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.
At the same time, others may avoid using hearing aides and mentioning embarrassing symptoms to doctors, according to Kristen Weir's article in The Monitor. Both men and women, embarrassed by the indignities of health care, may skip important diagnostic tests such as mammograms and prostate exams.
The good news, Kenneth Savitsky, PhD at Williams College has found, is that we often judge ourselves more harshly than others judge us. In a research study, he asked volunteers to imagine a social mishap or public failure. These researchers also embarrassed subjects by describing them in an unflattering way publicly. In both cases, observers judged the embarrassed subjects much less harshly than expected.
Psychologists are not always good at telling people what to do when embarrassed. There are a myriad of approaches, for example trying to ignore embarrassing incidents, distracting yourself, changing catastrophic thoughts about your embarrassing situation.
In dialectical behavior therapy, a treatment developed in the 1990's and frequently used to help people regulate painful emotions, skills group members are taught to apologize and make reparations for real harm done, say when you unintentionally insult someone, and to ignore or to boldly do those things which feel embarrassing, but are not harming anyone, such as getting a mammogram.
Embarrassment can be complicated by other emotions, such as anger, surprise or fear, adding complexity and making it more difficult to tease out whether our transgressions are hurtful or harmless. But, if you're feeling embarrassed, you may not want to suppress your reaction. You just might find that others identify with your discomfort and are forgiving when they know how you feel.