Embarrassment: A Form of Social Pain

Bibliographic Collection: 
CARTA-Inspired Publication
Publication Type: Journal Article
Authors: Harris, C.R.
Year of Publication: 2006
Journal: American Scientist
Volume: 94
Number: 6
Pagination: 524-533
Publication Language: eng
Keywords: pain, Social

Embarrassment has evolved to help undo the damage in situations where a person has unintentionally violated a social norm. The three subtypes of embarrassing situations are referred to as faux-pas, center-of-attention and sticky-situation embarrassment. Embarrassment is seen as a social counterpart to physical pain. It motivates the person to undo the social damage and restore the esteem of others. The severity of the misbehavior whether the act harms the observer or some third party seem to influence the effect that displays of embarrassment have on others. Embarrassment perceived as a temporary state triggers positive emotional responses but when suggestive of a more enduring defect promotes harsher judgments. It is akin to an appeasement gesture triggering a positive response in onlookers. The prototypical embarrassment expression includes looking down, smiling and attempts to control or inhibit the smile as well as frequent shifts of gaze. Embarrassment has likely evolved to regulate social behaviors in a way that aids the welfare of the person embarrassed.