Let’s Get Embarrassed

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Writing for the online magazine Greater Good, Dacher Keltner explores the evolutionary roots of embarrassment and explains how our pink cheeks can actually help us. Keltner, a psychologist who studies positive emotions, writes: “We may feel alienated, flawed, alone, and exposed when embarrassed, but our display of this complex emotion is a wellspring of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

The simple elements of the embarrassment display I have documented and traced back to other species’ appeasement and reconciliation processes–the gaze aversion, downward head movements, awkward smiles, and face touches–are a language of cooperation, they are the unspoken ethic of modesty. With these fleeting displays of deference, we navigate conflict-laden situations–watch how regularly people display embarrassment when in close physical spaces, when negotiating the turn-taking of everyday conversations, or when sharing food. We express gratitude and appreciation. And, with deflections of attention or face-saving parodies of the mishap, we quickly extricate embarrassed souls from their momentary predicaments.

Studying embarrassment does seem sort of fun–at least, for the researchers who are charged with inducing said embarrassment. “In perhaps the most mortifying experiment,” Keltner writes, “participants had to sing Barry Manilow’s song ‘Feelings’ using dramatic hand gestures–and then had to watch a video of their performance surrounded by other students.”

(Congrats to Greater Good on their 2009 Utne Independent Press Award nomination for social/cultural coverage!)

Source: Greater Good

Image by Symic, licensed under Creative Commons.

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