Do Something New: The Science Of Embarrassment

I like to try new things. My comfort zone is pretty large. This is why, when I was first brainstorming a column to write for my job, I decided to do one that involved trying new fitness activities in the hopes that giving them a shot myself would encourage other people to try new kinds of exercise too. I figured that fitness has been a really positive part of my life, and so many of the people I love who don’t figure out what kind of exercise speaks to them say that they don’t try things or make time for exercise because they’d be embarrassed if they weren’t strong enough right off the bat, or if they looked unknowledgeable in front of other gym-goers.

This extends to other things too, though. I don’t know if it’s just that I have a lot of anxious people in my life, but most people I know figure out the boundaries of their comfort zones and stay within those boundaries. It’s efficient, but it’s not very fun – I’ve had it reported to me repeatedly that there are all sorts of things that friends or family members would like to try but don’t, because they’re afraid that what they’d produce in the process of trying would be embarrassingly bad.

I chalk up my own ability to cope with embarrassment to three things: First, that I am and always have been terrible at sports, but that my parents forced me to play a lot of different kinds of sports when I was a kid anyway. Because of this, I accept I’m going to be terrible at everything at the beginning, and am pleasantly surprised if I turn out having a knack for it. Second, I grew up performing – acting, singing, playing piano – so I’m used to having the eyes of an audience on me, and I know what it’s like to both fuck up really badly and what it’s like to succeed in front of people who are expecting something from me. And I know from that experience that, by and large, if you fuck up, the audience is really compassionate about it. Think about it this way: You probably admire people just for trying things, right? The same goes for everyone else when you’re trying things.

And third, there’s the fact that one of my core beliefs is that I should maximize my life. I’m going to die in 70-odd years (hopefully), and that’s not that much time, so if something looks or sounds fun, I should probably just try it, damn the embarrassment.

Coping with embarrassment is a useful skill set to have, but it’s one that I seem to have lucked into. Others, I know, are frightened to speak in front of an audience for fear of sounding dumb, to do something that scares them for fear of appearing afraid in front of people who aren’t, to put aside long-held ideas for fear of having been wrong the whole time, to get around to things they’ve put off doing for fear of appearing naïve once they try. And so on. It all boils down to this: We don’t want to look stupid in front of people we respect, for one reason or another, and we assume that if we do end up looking stupid they’ll think less of us, and they won’t want us around.

So I’m doing two things to try to help any readers who might have trepidations about inching outside of their comfort zones. One is that I’m spending the month of June writing about new experiences to which I’m voluntarily exposing myself, some of which are way outside of my comfort zone (I’ll be beekeeping! I might pee myself), some of which are outside of my skill set (I have no idea how to build things with wood even though I’ve always wanted to know), some of which will broaden my horizons (like shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch – you’ll see), and some of which I just should’ve gotten around to by the age of 28 (I have never eaten shellfish, for shame).

The other is this post itself: I’m going to explain the science of embarrassment so that we can check out some coping strategies based on that science. So let’s jump in!

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What is embarrassment?

The first thing to know about embarrassment is that it is not the same thing as guilt or shame. Dr. Anja Eller explains in a 2011 paper on the relationship between social groups and embarrassment that guilt and shame are both “self-conscious emotions,” but that “embarrassment followed events that were more unexpected and for which people felt less responsible.” Dr. Matthew Feinberg elaborated on the subject (separately) that “Embarrassment is an emotion people feel when they have violated a social convention or disrupted ongoing social interactions.”

I asked Dr. Eller to explain to me what exactly the difference is. “Shame and embarrassment are often used interchangeably because they share some common characteristics – in everyday language this is similar for envy and jealousy, which are also often confused. Sometimes embarrassment is seen as a lighter form of shame,” she wrote. But research has shown that when people feel ashamed and when they feel embarrassed, they recall the events differently: “Often shame is felt when we believe that we have behaved in an immoral way (e.g. after telling a lie) or when other people have noticed a negative characteristic in us that we did not want them to see (e.g. being a bad loser). Embarrassment, on the other hand, is more often felt when we have violated a norm (e.g. inappropriate dress) or made a negative impression that we believe does not reflect our true self (e.g. appearing to be ignorant).”

Additionally, Dr. Virginia Sturm has done physiological research on embarrassment that demonstrates that embarrassment is processed in the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC), the part of our brains that performs social appraisals. In her research, she and her team found that people with less pACC grey matter were less likely to perform physiological and behavioral signs of embarrassment, such as an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and sweating on the physiological level, or gaze aversion and face-touching on the behavioral level.

So embarrassment, in other words, doesn’t happen when we feel that we’ve done something that reflects poorly on our character, but rather happens when we do something that we feel reflects poorly on our ability to abide by social standards. It is, in fact, a social tool.

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What purpose does embarrassment serve?

Dr. Feinberg’s 2011 paper on embarrassment as being “prosocial” made the rounds on the internet when it was published. The upshot of his team’s research is that embarrassment has social utility – it “acts as a nonverbal apology, reducing the likelihood of harsh judgment and aggression.” This is so, Feinberg says, because “when displaying embarrassment, […] the transgressor signals a commitment to the social order and that he or she is oriented toward others in prosocial fashion.” He posits further that on an instinctual level, humans want to be able to follow social norms because doing so gives us benefits like social approval and good reputation that make up for the sacrifices we make in order to be altruistic, or, in other words, contributing members of society.

Dr. Eller’s research focuses specifically on embarrassment in social circles, and how much embarrassment we experience depending on the audience who sees our social faux pas. She argues that we have ingroups and outgroups, ingroups being social groups who we value highly and with whom we want to have a good reputation, and outgroups being social groups whose judgment we value less. As individuals, we tend, she says, to be more embarrassed in front of ingroups than in front of outgroups; and in groups, we tend to be more embarrassed in front of higher-status groups who we value. If embarrassment is a way to apologize and strengthen social bonds, then, embarrassment between groups “repairs social relations and elicits forgiveness following transgressions,” and raises the status of the transgressing group.

All of which means that, in the eyes of sociologists and psychologists, embarrassment is a good thing. Dr. Eller, in fact, argues that because it’s so useful for social relations, “attempts should be made to increase [embarrassment] when the situation calls for it.”

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So if embarrassment is a good thing, how do we cope with it?

An interesting note in Dr. Eller’s study is that:

“The group (be it based on nationality, gender, university affiliation, or other criteria) and its norms become a frame of reference of how to behave for its members. In other words, when people act as ingroup members, their world view changes. They expect to share the same perspective and standards as fellow group members whose evaluations will be relevant to them. By contrast, there is no such common yardstick shared with outgroup members and much less concern with their evaluation.”

In other words, what you consider acceptable social behavior will change depending on the groups you affiliate yourself with. What’s normal for your social group will be normal for you. So to my mind, we know three things that can really help us to re-frame embarrassment in our minds:

  1. Embarrassment is a social tool that strengthens our relationships with other people and with groups of people we value.
  2. How much embarrassment we feel depends on how much we value the people we’re embarrassed in front of.
  3. Our concept of what is or isn’t embarrassing, or what is or isn’t normal behavior, changes based on our social group.

So, framing embarrassment in terms of things that we want to try but we fear will embarrass us – in terms of achieving goals, in other words – it seems like the best strategy for using embarrassment to our advantage would be to choose our social groups wisely. I asked Dr. Eller: If you want to write a book, for example, wouldn’t it be a good idea to surround yourself with professional writers, to become part of a social circle that included people who have done the thing you want to do? That way, when your writing inevitably embarrasses you (your grammar is bad, your first draft is godawful, or even, say, you commit a social faux pas with a contact from the publishing industry), you’ll be signalling your embarrassment about it, which also means signaling your desire to do better, to people whose experience and advice you value. You’ll strengthen your relationships with people you admire, and they’ll help you to perform better in the future.

Dr. Eller’s response? “Yes, exactly.”

So if we want to cope with embarrassment well, we need to perform the not insignificant task of figuring out what our priorities are and what we really want out of our lives. What are your goals? How do you want to spend your life? How will you be happiest? Then, we have to seek out the social groups who do those things, hang around them, and accept that we will always have to experience embarrassment, but that if we experience embarrassment around people we admire, it will be embarrassment that’s productive for our goals. Knowing that might help soften the blow of embarrassment.

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When is embarrassment not useful?

Dr. Feinberg notes that “because of these subjective qualities of embarrassment, people go to great lengths to avoid experiencing the emotion. The anticipated anxiety at the prospect of being embarrassed can impair everyday social interactions, and even lead to clinical disorders in extreme cases.” Dr. Eller agreed with this statement when I asked her about embarrassment that isn’t useful. She said that it doesn’t serve a purpose “when it is experienced chronically, (almost) irrespective of the triggers or situations, as for example, in social anxiety.”

Embarrassment can be painful, because it has to do with our ability to be respected by people we value. We’re afraid that if we embarrass ourselves, we’ll lose respect and be rejected or mocked. That’s really powerful for a lot of people, and it leads to social anxiety.

If you’re in a place of chronic social anxiety, or even if it’s more goal-specific and you’re just scared enough to embarrass yourself that you’ve given up on the idea of trying something you’d really like to do, it might help to remind yourself that the research on embarrassment shows that experiencing embarrassment doesn’t make other people respect us less. It makes them respect and trust us more, because we’re essentially communicating to them that we want their acceptance and we’re sorry for doing the incorrect thing. And, hell, feeling embarrassed because you went to an open mic night and gave it your best shot but didn’t do as well as you wanted to is more productive for you than being embarrassed that you knocked something over in the grocery store. Either way, you’re going to feel embarrassed eventually. You might as well make it work for you.

And, Dr. Eller pointed out, “Predicaments happen fairly often. Most of the time, the embarrassing situation passes quickly and is forgotten about or is laughed about later with friends. Some of our most amusing anecdotes are about embarrassing moments.”

But she has some suggestions if you’re chronically anxious over embarrassment, too: “Relaxation techniques can be readily learned and used when needed. Another way to deal with embarrassment is to distract the audience and oneself from the embarrassing incident (e.g. by a change of topic). Often, people try to laugh the situation off and are gladly joined by the audience. Interestingly, most audiences feel embarrassment on our behalf rather than malicious joy at our misfortune,” she told me. “It has also been found that people are their harshest judges themselves, so trying to anticipate the consequences of the mishap in a realistic, non-catastrophic way can help (e.g. passing wind in public may cause a few giggles but will not lead to exclusion from a group).”

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In conclusion!

I hope it helps to know that embarrassment is normal, that it’s a usual part of the way your brain works around other people, and that you can harness its power for your own betterment and happiness. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, you’ll feel it eventually, so let’s all make it count. Seize the day, friends!

[Anja Eller et al. “Embarrassment: The ingroup-outgroup audience effect in faux pas situations.”]

[Matthew Feinberg et al. “Flustered and Faithful: Embarrassment as a Signal of Prosociality.”]

[Virginia Sturm et al. “Role of right pregenual anterior cingulate cortex in self-conscious emotional activity.”]

[Image via Shutterstock]


Send me a line at [email protected] and follow me on Facebook. Check out the Do Something New series, every weekday in the month of June 2015.