Social interactions can feel like walking a tight-rope, an excruciating pit of embarrassment always just one tiny misstep away. Well, here is some comforting news for the easily embarrassed. A new study claims that people prone to embarrassment are better citizens – more selfless and cooperative (more “prosocial” in the psychological jargon). What’s more, onlookers interpret expressions of embarrassment as a sign that a person is prosocial, and as a consequence are more likely to cooperate with and trust them. This makes sense if you consider that signs of embarrassment signal to onlookers that you’re sensitive to social rules and concerned that you’ve transgressed. Therefore, although it feels excruciating, claim the study authors, embarrassment “can also function in our favour, helping to advertise some of our better, more desirable qualities.”
Matthew Feinberg and his colleagues at University California, Berkeley conducted five experiments in total, involving hundreds of undergrad participants. The first two studies were designed to test whether people who experience more embarrassment are more prosocial. In the first, participants were video recorded as they recounted a time they’d been embarrassed. The videos were coded and it was found that the students who displayed more signs of embarrassment (e.g. gaze aversion, nervous face touching and laughter) also tended to endorse values of fairness more, and they were actually more generous with money in an economic game. In the second study, participants were asked to say how much embarrassment they’d experience in a range of hypothetical social scenarios. The participants who said they’d be more embarrassed tended to be more generous in an economic game and they also scored more highly on a questionnaire measure of their pro-sociality.
The remaining three studies were designed to test whether people who display signs of embarrassment are perceived as more prosocial. In one, participants were shown clips of the videos from the first study. Individuals who’d appeared more embarrassed in these videos were rated as more prosocial by the participants. In another study, participants looked at static pictures of actors displaying an expression of either embarrassment, pride or a neutral expression. Embarrassed people were again rated as more prosocial. A follow-up study was similar, but this time participants agreed to cooperate more fully in an economic game with people who they’d seen pictured looking embarrassed.
A fifth and final study was the most realistic. Participants saw their research partner praised for his or her superb performance on a mental performance test. Unbeknown to the participants, their partner wasn’t another volunteer but was in fact an accomplice of the researchers. On being praised, this actor either responded with embarrassment or with pride. Crucially, later on, the participants tended to cooperate more with their partner if he or she had shown embarrassment earlier, as opposed to pride. What’s more, the greater the intensity of their partner’s earlier display of embarrassment, the more participants tended to trust and cooperate with him or her. The researchers also ruled out the possibility that the actor was displaying shame, rather than embarrassment. One final important detail: the researchers checked and these effects of embarrassment weren’t because the participants saw their embarrassed partner as weak, liked them more, or because they felt compassion towards them.
“Our data are the first to reveal that people who feel and show intense embarrassment are indeed more prosocial,” the researchers concluded, “and that this display triggers prosocial inferences and actions.” The new results chime with earlier work on blushing, showing that onlookers make positive assumptions about blushers. However, the new data show that blushing isn’t necessary for these positive effects.
The researchers acknowledged the limits of their study, including the fact that they were reading a lot into the behaviour shown by participants during economic games, and that the findings could be different in different cultures. They also said there was a need for more research – for example, to find out whether it’s possible for people to feign embarrassment and thereby benefit from the flattering assumptions onlookers make about easily embarrassed people.
Feinberg, M., Willer, R., and Keltner, D. (2012). Flustered and faithful: Embarrassment as a signal of prosociality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (1), 81-97 DOI: 10.1037/a0025403