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Embarrassment (Updated 2024)

The Nature of Embarrassment: Understanding the Uncomfortable Moments

Embarrassment is a universal human experience characterized by a sudden regret or uneasiness about one’s actions or words. It often arises when we perceive our behavior as outside the norms or expectations we have set for ourselves.

While embarrassment is commonly associated with situations involving crowds or familiar faces, it can occur in various contexts. It is important to differentiate embarrassment from shame, as they have distinct mental characteristics and effects.

an anxious man feel embarrass

Overcoming embarrassment requires understanding its triggers and recognizing its potential for personal growth. In this article, we delve into the nature of embarrassment, explore its cognitive appraisals, examine its development, and uncover its evolutionary purpose.

Embarrassment vs. Shame: Understanding the Difference

It is often triggered by situations where we feel socially exposed or out of our comfort zone. In contrast, shame is a more profound and enduring emotion that stems from evaluating our actions as morally wrong or harmful to others.

Embarrassment primarily revolves around self-perception and the fear of being negatively judged by others. It is linked to a sense of inadequacy or the perception that we have not met the standards we set for ourselves.

This can occur in various contexts, such as public speaking or making a mistake in front of others. The focus is on the discrepancy between our desired self-image and the perceived reality of our behavior.

Shame, conversely, goes beyond the surface-level concerns of embarrassment. It is rooted in a moral evaluation of our actions or choices.

We feel ashamed when we think we have behaved in a way that goes against our morals or societal standards, harming others or violating fundamental ideals. It frequently entails a more giant emotional load and a stronger sense of personal culpability.



Getting Over Embarrassment: Embracing Growth

  • Stepping outside comfort zones: Embracing embarrassment as a sign of growth and progress.
  • Challenging self-imposed limitations: Recognizing that worthwhile achievements lie beyond our comfort bubbles.
  • Embracing discomfort: Learning to see embarrassment as a positive indication of personal development.
  • Accepting ongoing jitters: Acknowledging that uneasy feelings may persist while embracing new experiences.

The Significance of Embarrassment

Embarrassment holds a significance that goes beyond its seemingly trivial nature. It plays a distinctive role in human nature, with consequential effects in various domains, including medical settings.

Unlike objective events, emotions such as embarrassment are elicited by cognitive appraisals. Our beliefs about the world and its conditions influence the specific emotions we experience.

Development of Embarrassment

The development of embarrassment is closely linked to the emergence of self-awareness in children. Typically, this self-conscious emotion manifests between 15 and 24 months. Initially, young children experience embarrassment when they fail to meet the expectations of others, aligning with what is known as the “awkward-interaction model.” However, as children grow older and their cognitive abilities develop, they become increasingly concerned with how they are being evaluated by others.

Children start feeling embarrassed by age three due to the recognition and awareness of others’ evaluations and perceptions.

The Evolutionary Purpose of Embarrassment

Embarrassment serves an evolutionary purpose, likely evolving as a mechanism to mitigate unintentional violations of social norms. It provides a survival advantage by helping individuals navigate the complexities of social interactions. In group living, where harmonizing behaviors is essential, embarrassment plays a crucial role in maintaining group cohesion. It serves three primary functions:

First, it signals that a violation was unintentional, distinguishing it from intentional transgressions. Second, the discomfort associated with embarrassment is a deterrent, discouraging individuals from repeating behaviors that may lead to social rebuke or rejection. Finally, embarrassment motivates individuals to take action to rectify their social standing and restore the esteem of others.

The Positive Effect of Displayed Embarrassment

  • Clever experimental methods: Studies have used creative approaches to elicit embarrassment and measure its effects on observers.
  • Semin and Manstead’s grocery store experiment: Videos were created where a man accidentally knocks over a display of toilet paper, displaying embarrassment and fixing the mess in different versions.
  • Positive attributions: Observers tend to make benign attributions when individuals display embarrassment after a social norm violation.
  • Intentions and behavior: Displayed embarrassment signals that the violation was unintentional, leading to more favorable perceptions of the person.

Recommendation: Nature Vs. Nurture

The Bottom Line

Embarrassment impacts the individual experiencing it and influences cognitive and social dynamics in observers. Displayed embarrassment has a positive effect, leading to more favorable attributions when a violation is perceived as unintentional. Nonverbal expressions differentiate intentional and unintentional violations, helping observers form judgments and attributions.

Furthermore, the appeasement behaviors associated with embarrassment are similar to those observed in nonhuman animals. By understanding these cognitive and social effects of embarrassment, we gain insights into the intricate dynamics of human interactions and the role of this emotion in shaping social norms and relationships.


[1] American Scientist, Embarrassment: A Form of Social Pain Published on December 2016, Accessed May 24, 2023

[2]Scientific American, The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame Published on August 9, 2019, Accessed May 24, 2023

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