How Feeling Bad May Show You’re Good: The Science of Embarrassment

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European woman hiding face under the clothes. She is oulling sweater on her head. Depressed emotion. Wish to be alone.

Loretta Langlois, Layout Editor

Maybe you slipped while walking in the hall, or you accidentally called your teacher ‘mom’. Embarrassment is something everyone experiences, and it changes shape depending on the person. For some, it’s being on stage, for others, it’s being called beautiful. But why do we get embarrassed, and is there a way to avoid it? 

First, we need to know what embarrassment is. To put it simply, embarrassment is feedback from your brain telling you not to repeat an error, such as tripping in public. It can be triggered in lots of different ways, depending on the person. There are three main situations that trigger embarrassment, and authors classify them as “faux-pas, center-of-attention, and sticky-situation.” (American Scientist). ‘Faux-pas’ is a more public form of embarrassment. For example, going to the bathroom and returning to your friend group only to have a stranger point out later that your skirt was tucked up. Center-of-attention embarrassment would be something like being the recipient of a surprise party. Finally, sticky-situation embarrassment would be along the lines of reminding someone close to you of a debt. These three scenarios are some of the most common, but there are lots of others. To recap, embarrassment is mental feedback telling you not to repeat mistakes, and for most people, it is triggered in three different scenarios. 

Why do we get embarrassed? There are many different theories, but the one most scientists agree on was created by Rowland S. Miller at Sam Houston State University. What he says is that embarrassment occurs when your brain believes that your social image – the way you want people to perceive you – has been messed up and people are going to start forming negative opinions about you. There’s another theory presented by John Sabini from the University of Pennsylvania. He and his colleagues believe that embarrassment is most likely to occur when we believe that a social interaction will be messed up, or when they face a situation where they do not know the proper social norms. These two theories are still being debated to this day, along with many others.

So now that we know what embarrassment is and how it can be triggered, the big question can be answered: can you prevent embarrassment? Unfortunately, you can’t. But there are many different ways to lessen its blow, and there are some positives to one of the most negative emotions. The fact that you get embarrassed in the first place can make you appear more likable and trustworthy, according to the Washington Post. This is because it shows that you care about these social norms that we all follow and that you won’t repeat whatever mistake you made again. A series of five studies by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologist proves this. In all of the studies they did, the people whose reactions were more embarrassed were rated as being more trustworthy, generous, and overall likable. So the next time you encounter an embarrassing situation, just try to laugh it off and remember that these bad feelings will let others know you’re a good person. 

 

Works Cited

“Embarrassment: A Form of Social Pain.” American Scientist, 19 July 2019, 

Swanson, Ana. “Why It’s Good to Show You’re Embarrassed.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Nov. 2021, 

“Embarrassment | Psychology Today.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, LLC, 2021.