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Embarrassing moments don’t have to happen in a crowd. Oh, no — you are perfectly capable of embarrassing yourself even when you’re all alone.

Melissa Dahl, Science of Us
September 28, 2015

Embarrassing moments don’t have to happen in a crowd. Oh, no — you are perfectly capable of embarrassing yourself even when you’re all alone. Consider the college student — whose experience is included in a recent study — who still wets the bed as a 21-year-old. He has a private room; no one will ever know about his nocturnal bladder-control issues. And yet the very thought of it still embarrasses him.

This idea may not sound so surprising, especially to those of us who regularly manage to make private fools of ourselves. But it’s a pretty radically different way of thinking about embarrassment for psychology researchers. Embarrassment has long been thought of as a social emotion, one that depends on your having an audience to witness whatever ridiculous thing you’ve just done. It’s long been theorized that the feeling of embarrassment alerts you to the fact that you’ve violated some social norm, so that you can course-correct and apologize if necessary, without losing your standing in the group. The social nature of embarrassment has been thought to explain the feeling's physiological response, too – in particular, blushing – in that it alerts others to your emotional state. You know you messed up, and you are feeling properly awkward about it.

But the authors of a recent paper on the subject, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, argue that whether the faux pas occurs privately or publicly, we experience the feeling of embarrassment in similar ways. Instead of a violation of social norms, Aradhna Krishna of the University of Michigan and her colleagues argue that embarrassment can arise from feeling like you’ve violated your own standards. It happens when you judge yourself, in other words, and decide that your behavior isn’t quite lining up with your self-image.

In one experiment, the researchers asked people to write about either a time they experienced public or private embarrassment, and to rate how they felt about it. They found no significant differences in emotional intensity for either scenario. In another experiment, they asked a group of men to imagine that they were purchasing Viagra because they were struggling with impotence; some were asked to consider how they’d feel if they purchased it in public, and others were asked to think about buying it online. Both groups independently predicted feeling similar levels of embarrassment.

It’s a preliminary inquiry into the subject, which, as Krishna and her co-authors write, so far has mostly been ignored in the study of emotions. And, because their study used self-reports and thought experiments, it's not clear how these results would apply in the real world. Still, speaking of private embarrassment, you have to feel for the study volunteer who confided in the researchers about the bed-wetting. His identity wasn’t used, true, but you imagine he might nonetheless be experiencing some private embarrassment if he ever sees the resulting paper, as his predicament was used as its title: “Wetting the bed at twenty-one: Embarrassment as a private emotion.”

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Science of Us is a smart but playful window into the latest science on human behavior, with the goal of enlightening, entertaining, and providing useful information that can be applied to everyday life.

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