ERP Graphics courtesy of HealioOpens in new window

In their textbook on emotion, psychologists James Kalat and Michelle Shiota (2007) define embarrassment as “the emotion felt when one violates a social convention, thereby drawing unexpected social attention and motivating submissive, friendly behavior that should appease other people” (p. 239).

This definition consists of three components that require elaboration.

  1. First, social convention violation is conceived broadly and may include making an innocent mistake (such as beginning to introduce someone to another person and forgetting the name(s) of one or both people), being in an unusual or uncommon situation (such as being on the receiving end of glowing praise in a public situation), or, less frequently, doing something that induces a low to moderate amount of shame (such as failing at a task that is slightly or moderately important to one).
  1. Second, this violation draws unexpected social attention. Thus, in embarrassment, one is the center of attention, even if briefly, and the attention was a surprise.
  2. Third, the person is motivated to act in a submissive, friendly fashion, which may appease. A large part of the submissive action is the particular facial and bodily expression characteristic of embarrassment.

When embarrassed, an individual hides her face and avoids eye contact, possibly turning her head down. She may smile a tense, “bashful” smile. Blushing often occurs.

According to some researchers, such as Keltner and Buswell (1997), this facial/bodily reaction, especially in combination with other behaviors, serves to appease others. Sometimes embarrassment occurs because the individual did something that caused some harm or inconvenience to another person. For example, one of the authors (G.R.), while in high school and working as a waitperson, once accidentally poured iced tea into the lap of a customer. G.R. blushed dramatically, apologized profusely, and during part of the experience, covered her face with her hands. Had she simply walked away without appearing embarrassed, even if she apologized, the customer would have likely felt more slighted than he did.

Keltner and Buswell argue that the expression of embarrassment has a social function; it signals submissiveness, a concern about the person who was harmed, and that the offense was accidental. The expression may have evolved through naural selection to defuse potentially anger-inducing situations.

Embarrassment is one of several emotions, including shameOpens in new window, guiltOpens in new window, and prideOpens in new window, that are called self-conscious emotionsOpens in new window. These emotions are generally more cognitively complex than fearOpens in new window, angerOpens in new window, happinessOpens in new window, or many others.

Feeling one of the self-conscious emotions involves evaluating or judging oneself or one’s behavior.

This means that to experience these emotions, the individual must possess a concept of self (self-conceptOpens in new window).

According to many psychologists, the self-concept is not inborn; rather, it develops over time. The development of the self-concept begins with recognizing the boundaries of the physical self. For instance, when nursing, the infant does not initially know the difference between self and the mother’s breast.

With life experience, including more and more nursing experiences, the infant begins to notice the distinction between the physical self and the physical nonself (the “other,” in this case, the mother’s breast). Psychological and other attributes (e.g., I am smart, I am friendly, I am lazy, I am good poker player) gradually become aspects of the individual’s self-concept. When a person is embarrassed, he feels that he has done something, or something has happened to him, that is worthy of self-consciousness.

The investigation of embarrassment and the other self-conscious emotions has been relatively neglected. As the study of emotion has gained in popularity and sophistication, interest in the self-conscious emotions has increased.

Most researchers note the existence of overlaps between the self-conscious emotions (in subjective experience, in expression, etc.), for example, between embarrassment and shame. A significant portion of future research on embarrassment, shame, guilt, and pride will focus on clarifying the distinction between them.

See also:
  1. Kalat, J. W., & Shiota, M.N. (2007). Emotion. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  2. Keltner, D., & Buswell, B.N. (1997). Embarrassment: Its distinct form and appeasement functions. Psychological Bulletin, 122, 250 – 270.
  3. Lewis, M. (2008). Self-conscious emotions: Embarrassment, pride, shame, and guilt. In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, & L.F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 742 – 756). New York: Guilford.
  4. Sabini, j., Siepmann, M., Stein, J., & Meyerowitz, M. (2000). Who is embarrassed by what? Cognition and Emotion, 14, 213 – 240.