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October 4, 2011
By Dorothy Cotton

This column is coming to you from the Via Train leaving from Toronto en route to my house. I am on my way home after a business trip, sipping wine and reading some stuff that I thought would be good fodder for a Blueline column. 

A series of interesting research studies just came out about the relationship between embarrassment and prosocialty. Since prosociality is kind of the flip side of antisociality and we are always interested in antisociality, I figured we should also be interested in prosociality. I was trying to think up a good example of something embarrassing–without embarrassing myself, because of course that is kind of embarrassing–and to my delight, someone near me provided a good example. 

Here’s the scenario: two young guys are sitting across the row from me chatting. An older woman comes along and stops beside these two guys. She looks at her ticket, looks at the two guys and suggests somewhat hesitantly that they must be in the wrong seats as her ticket indicates she should be where they are sitting. They look at their tickets, confirm that the seat numbers are correct and basically suggest she take a hike. There is some eye-rolling and snide comments about dementia. The woman goes and finds the attendant who comes and inspects all the tickets and points out that while the guys are in the correct seats, they are in the wrong car. One guy looks horribly embarrassed. He apologizes to the woman and displays all the typical embarrassment-type behaviours: he looks away and at the floor, smiles awkwardly, gestures nervously, looks generally conciliatory. The other guy shrugs and says “Look, it’s not a big deal, we’ll move,” and heads off to the other car muttering that SHE could have just gone to the other car rather than making them move after they were all settled in. In other words, one guy was embarrassed by the gaff — and one wasn’t.

So which of these folks is less likely to be joyriding in your car or selling drugs to your kids? You probably guessed — it is the guy who was embarrassed. 

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It is not news that embarrassment serves a particular social purpose. Embarrassment is an emotion which signals to others that you are aware that you have violated a social norm or interfered with a social interaction. Embarrassment is an acknowledgement to others that you have appraised both your own behaviour and the reaction of others to your behaviour–and that you are aware that you have blown it. In other words, in order for a person to be embarrassed, he has to know what the social conventions are and be aware that he hasn’t followed them. 

Being embarrassed is not fun and most people will go to great lengths to avoid embarrassing themselves. However, being embarrassed is not necessarily a bad thing. Embarrassment sends a signal to other that you are aware you have violated a social convention and somehow disrupted social interactions and that you feel bad about that. In that way, it is a socially constructive emotion. It actually repairs the damage that might be done by the bad behaviour. 

Even though you might briefly lose a bit in terms of social standing by committing a faux pas, research (and experience!) shows that one quickly regains one’s social status if appropriate displays of embarrassment follow the faux pas. Being embarrassed mends fences and acts as an apology. (Some politicians have even figured this out.)

What does this tell us about prosociality? 

Well, logically it makes sense that if a person (1) knows what the social “rules” are; (2) is aware that he has violated them and (3) subsequently feels bad about that, then that person is more likely overall to engage in prosocial behaviour–and conversely less likely to engage in antisocial behaviour.

Indeed, that seems to be the case. A series of studies by Matthew Feinberg and his colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated that generally, people recognize the expression of embarrassment as an “affiliative” behaviour meaning that the person who is embarrassed has a greater desire to abide by social conventions and commit to social norms (and heaven knows, Berkeley has to have an endless source of good material for studying embarrassment!!) 

People regard people who get embarrassed as being prosical people–and in fact, it appears that they actually ARE more prosocial than people who do not get embarrassed. You might not like feeling embarrassed, but other people will like you better if you are embarrassed. Almost regardless of what you did, being embarrassed will make people see you as more prosocial.

One of the interesting things that this line of research highlights is that the fact that while we may think that we are judged by what we do, we are just as likely to be judged by how we perceive and react to what we have done. Our emotional reactions to events can indicate to others our awareness of our own behaviour and our perceptions of ourselves. 

If you have ever been in court, you know that people pay a lot of attention to a person’s reactions to his own behaviour. Obviously, being embarrassed is not going to be a prime determinant of anyone’s behaviour–particularly if we are looking at experienced criminal offenders. If a person has no impulse control and little in the way of personal resources, being embarrassed is not going to be enough to make him mend his ways and it will not provide him with skills that he does not have. But if I were looking at the behaviour of a colleague who has erred, I’d be a little more optimistic about the person who seems embarrassed by his error as opposed to the one who denies, deflects or covers up.


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