The Psychology of Embarrassment
Embarrassment is a key human emotion that we’ve all experienced, usually at the cost of our own dignity. It’s a state of self-conscious distress that causes many of us to blush. And it’s something most of us work hard to avoid.
The APA’s Monitor has an interesting article this month looking into the psychology of embarrassment and the research behind it. Embarrassment can act as a powerful and beneficial social glue strengthening our social relationships with others.
But it can also have a dark side, as we seek to avoid it — sometimes at the cost of our own health or happiness.
While there’s little we can do to stop embarrassment in every situation, we can better understand the purpose it serves in our emotional health. Understanding how it can serve and hurt us means we’ll be better prepared the next time it pops up in our life.
Embarrassment has both good components:
The benefit of embarrassment, however, might depend on who’s watching. Anja Eller, PhD, an associate professor of social psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, has found that people are more likely to be embarrassed when they err in front of members of their own social group. People are less embarrassed when outsiders see them goof up, especially when the outsiders are seen as lower in status.
… and bad:
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 altogether.
Researchers have found that embarrassment is adaptive. “Expressing the emotion tends to repair social relations and elicit forgiveness. And as [one researcher] has shown, signs of sheepishness may even advertise trustworthiness.”
So now you have a better of idea how embarrassment can both help and hurt you.