Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Embarrassment

What is embarrassment, what causes it, and how can it be managed?


Have you ever wondered why you may experience mild to severe levels of discomfort when you commit (or think of) a socially unacceptable or disgraceful act that is witnessed by other people? This is known as the self-conscious emotional state of embarrassment.

Embarrassment is a common phenomenon that many people encounter on a daily basis- it would be extremely rare for one to never experience a moment of embarrassment, such as spilling their drink on themselves at a public event or tripping and falling down the stairs.

Throughout this chapter, the emotion of embarrassment will be explored to discover what it truly is, what causes embarrassment, and how embarrassment can be managed. The study of embarrassment is of both theoretical and practical importance, as embarrassment can cause people to behave in extremely irrational ways. Developing a better understanding of the emotion itself may aid people who frequently experience embarrassment, with health concerns such as anxiety and depression.

Understanding embarrassment is tricky as it is an extremely complex emotion that can often be fused with shame or guilt. Despite similarities between these three emotions, embarrassment has been shown to activate particular parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala, differing from the parts of the brain that shame and guilt activate.

Although experiencing embarrassment may seem like the end of the world, it is a completely common, natural occurrence that can be easily managed through simple techniques such as taking deep breaths, practising self-compassion and confronting the situation, rather than avoiding it. It is important to remember that humour plays an incredibly important role in embarrassment, and when all else fails trying to recuperate after an embarrassing occurrence, it is perfectly acceptable to laugh about it.

Focus questions
  • What is embarrassment?
  • What causes embarrassment?
  • How can embarrassment be managed?

What is embarrassment?Edit

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Embarrassment is defined as a commonly-occurring, short-lived negative emotional response that arises from a threat to the public self in the presence of an audience, real or imagined (Miller and Leary 1992). Embarrassment has typically been classified as a social emotion- where one violates a social norm in the presence of others and perceives loss of approval from others (Krishna, Herd & Aydinoglu, 2015). However, prior research has shown that embarrassment can also be a private emotion and experienced without an audience[factual?].

Embarrassment is characterised by feelings of exposure, abashment, awkwardness, or regret, and can be formed as an emotion in children once they are able to recognise that the figure in the mirror is his or herself, which usually occurs early as 15 to 24 months of life (Lewis, Sullivan, Stanger & Weiss, 1989). Embarrassment commonly strikes without warning, and individuals can experience a range of emotional levels of slight discomfort to absolute mortification when they commit an embarrassing public act that welcomes judgements from themselves or others. This discomfort or mortification can be expressed quite obviously through facial expressions and actions (see Figure 1), such as when a person avoids eye contact with others, widens their eyes, has a downward gaze, sweats, blushes, stammers, fidgets, or covers their face with their hands.

While basic emotions such as anger, joy or sadness tend to happen automatically, without much cognitive processing, the emotion of embarrassment differs as it is classified as a self-conscious emotion. Experiencing self-conscious emotions, such as embarrassment, pride, or shame require a more in depth self reflection and self-evaluation.

Embarrassment and shameEdit

In as early as 1901, Freud noted that embarrassment is part of the psychopathy of everyday life, but has been largely overlooked as a subject for psychoanalytic study (Dann, 1977). The study of embarrassment is difficult as it is a complex emotion which has been fused with shame (Dann, 1977). Although there are various similarities between embarrassment and shame, there are certain qualitative psychological distinctions between the two.

The emotional experiences of embarrassment and shame are in some ways very similar. Both are typically characterised as feelings of exposure and heightened self-awareness and are generally accompanied by feelings of distress, inappropriateness and inadequacy (Babcock and Sabini, 1990). These similarities have caused many psychologists to believe that embarrassment is synonymous with shame. Lewis (1971) argues that embarrassment is just a milder variant of shame. On the other hand, Mosher and White (1981), believe that despite the similarities between the two emotions, embarrassment and shame do seem to be extremely different and distinct experiences. The feeling of shame generally tends to have a much more devastating effect on individuals and poses a greater threat to the individual’s conception and evaluation of the self (Babcock and Sabini, 1990).

Case study - Bastian et al. (2016)

In a meta-analysis (Bastian et al., 2016), [grammar?] results showed that different areas of the brain were activated when it experienced the emotions of shame, guilt and embarrassment. Multiple studies on these three emotions and their neurological connections to the brain were conducted to show which specific parts of the brain were activated when expressing each of the three emotions, such as the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala, as seen in Figure 3.

What causes embarrassment?Edit

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Embarrassing situationsEdit

Goffman (1956) stated that during interaction, people are expected to possess certain attributes, capacities, and information which, taken together, fit into a self that is coherently unified and appropriate for the occasion they are in. When an embarrassing event occurs, doubt begins to loom and discredits the embarrassed persons self. They then feel out of place and in a state of discomfort, causing them to be embarrassed over what they have done or what they appear to have done to the interaction. Embarrassing situations come in all different forms, and can be both negative or positive. Because embarrassment is a highly individual experience, levels of embarrassment may vary between person to person. Consider these examples of some common embarrassing situations:

1. When something awkward occurs

Cassie had been grocery shopping and bought several snacks. Cassie accidentally dropped the bag of groceries on the busy street on the way home. Embarrassed, she laughed to herself while she tried to pick up her indulgent snacks that were rolling away from her on the street, such as her ice cream container and soft drink bottles, as people avoided her and cars drove past on the road.

2. When your privacy is violated

Toby lives with his mother, and whenever he tried to make a phone call, his mother tries to eavesdrop on his conversations. This is particularly embarrassing when Toby wants to call his girlfriend, but is apprehensive as he knows his mother can hear him.

3. When you don't know something

Grace is having dinner with her friends, but notices they keep glancing in her direction and one or two have snickered after doing so. It turns out that Grace had some food in her teeth but none of her friends told her.

4. Accidentally committing a faux pas

Andre has just joined a new firm and his colleagues are making jokes about another colleague Marks bald head. Andre chimes in with a joke of his own, and is met with cold glances from his colleagues. Andre realises he is not as close with Mark as his colleagues are and should not have said anything.

5. When you don't fit in

Ezra has grey streaks in his hair and tried to hide it as much as he can. Every time he is about to leave the house, he sprays his hair with colour retouching hair spray to hide his greys. No one notices his greys, yet Ezra is still embarrassed about his ordeal.

Does embarrassment call for an audience?Edit

Note that in the four examples above of embarrassing situations, situation 1, 2, 3 and 4 are depicted in a social context with an external audience. Situation 5, however, is in a private context with no external audience. Many philosophers believe that feeling embarrassed has to do with being exposed to an "audience" appraising our conduct (Benziman, 2015). As explained by Béla Szabados, a philosophy professor at the University of Regina: “there has to be an audience which is seen by the subject as appraising one’s performance or conduct and finds it wanting".[factual?]

Per prior research, embarrassment generally occurs following some type of transgression- “a violation of socially accepted boundaries or codes of conduct” (Goffman, 1956; Oxford Dictionary), which is then potentially observed and appraised by others. It is described as an aversive state that causes abashment and chagrin, and occurs in “social encounters” (Miller & Leary, 1992).

Opposing research states that, although a feeling of embarrassment is more commonly known to occur when in the presence of an external audience, private embarrassment is also followed with transgression. Even without other people present to observe an embarrassing moment, the transgressions are still observed and appraised by the self (Krishna, Herd & Aydinoglu, 2015). Thus, boundaries for transgressions can also be violations of one's persona or self-concept (Krishna, Herd & Aydinoglu, 2015).

Case study - Higuchi and Fukada (2002)

In a study conducted by Higuchi and Fukada (2002), four causal factors were examined to see which would be most characteristic in public and private situations that are embarrassing. 288 Japanese men and women were presented with two embarrassing situations representing either public e.g., falling over on a crowded platform) or private (e.g., failing an examination due to lack of studying) contexts (Krishna & Herd, 2018). Participants then rated the scene by using a 4-point Likert-type scale ranging from not at all characteristic (1) to very characteristic (4), in terms of how much they believe they would experience embarrassment in that situation (Higuchi & Fukada, 2002). The casual factors are as follows:

1. Apprehension of social evaluation

2. Inconsistency with self-image

3. Disruption of social interaction

4. Loss of self-esteem

The results of the study showed that the public situation the causal factors were ordered as (a) disruption of social interaction, (b) apprehension of social evaluation, (c) inconsistency with self-image, and (d) loss of self-esteem, and in the private situation causal factors were ordered as (a) loss of self-esteem, (b) inconsistency with self-image, (c) apprehension of social evaluation, and (d) disruption of social interaction (Higuchi & Fukada, 2002). The authors concluded that public embarrassment is driven by concerns of social evaluation and uncertainty about how to act around others, and that private embarrassment is caused by inconsistency with one’s self-image and lower feelings of self-worth (Krishna & Herd, 2018).

The neurobiology of embarrassmentEdit

A great deal of research has investigated the neural correlations of basic emotions such as anger, fear, joy and sadness. Unfortunately, less research has investigated the neural basis of the experience of the negative moral emotions, such as shame, embarrassment and guilt (Bastin et al., 2016). Embarrassment is a self-conscious emotion commonly related to the presence of a public audience, and this has been investigated in only six fMRI studies to date. Five studies used healthy subjects (Finger et al., 2006, Moll et al., 2007, Morita et al., 2008, Morita et al., 2013, Takahashi et al., 2004) and one study investigated the neural correlates of embarrassment in high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (Morita et al., 2012). In addition to these studies, structural MRI has been used to investigate embarrassment in patients suffering from behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD) and controls (Morita et al., 2012).

These studies used many methods to invoke embarrassment from their patients such as, but not limited to, using short scenarios depicting social situations moderated by the presence vs. absence of an audience to trigger embarrassment (Finger et al., 2006), and using written scripts in a moral sentiment task to elicit the emotional experience of embarrassment (Moll et al., 2007).

Two of the six fMRI studies looked at embarrassment in relation to a neutral condition and found embarrassment to be associated with increased brain activation in the dmPFC (Moll et al., 2007, Takahashi et al., 2004), the vlPFC (Takahashi et al., 2004), the dACC (Moll et al., 2007), the AIC (Moll et al., 2007), the anterior temporal lobes (Takahashi et al., 2004), the posterior superior temporal sulcus (STS) (Moll et al., 2007, Takahashi et al., 2004) and the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) (Moll et al., 2007). Takahashi et al. (2004) also found increased brain activation in the left hippocampus and visual cortex (calcarine and lingual gyrus) and hypothesised the embarrassment center is focused in an area called the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (see Figure 3). (Bastin et al., 2016).

Test yourself!

How early on in life can children form the emotion of embarrassment?

from 15 to 24 months
from 6 to 12 months
from 17 to 24 months
from 12 to 36 months

How can embarrassment be managed?Edit

[Provide more detail]

The prevalence of empathyEdit

As consumers, we often forgo opportunities to help ourselves, and others, in order to avoid embarrassment (Jiang, Drolet & Scott, 2018). This tendency to avoid embarrassment entirely is especially true for people who are high in public self-consciousness (PUBSC) (Jiang, Drolet & Scott, 2018). PUBSC[explain?] is defined as the tendency to be aware of oneself as a social object (Fenigstein et al., 1975). High public self-consciousness (HPUBSC) corresponds to heightened feelings of being the focus of attention (Fenigstein et al., 1975), and people with HPUBSC show to be more concerned than others are with how they are regarded by others.

So, how can people, especially people with HPUBSC, to counter their tendency toward embarrassment-avoidance[Rewrite to improve clarity]? According to psychological research on empathy-neglect, Epley et al. (2002) stated that an individuals’[grammar?] fears of embarrassment and social disapproval are often unfounded. Observers of a persons[grammar?] embarrassing occurrence most often do not notice embarrassing blunders. And, even when observers do notice, they are generally forgiving and empathetic (see Figure 4). They exhibit empathy-neglect (Epley et al., 2002). This prevalence of empathy is also highlighted in the "Nice Guy" theory of embarrassment, coined by Erving Goffman (1967), as he suggested that sympathetic embarrassment was a customary reaction when observing the embarrassment of others (Billig, 2001), and that people will often collaborate to save the face of someone who is embarrassed. Nonetheless, many people will believe that observers will judge them more harshly than they actually do, and this bias appears to be fairly robust and difficult to counter.

It is important to remember that it is extremely difficult to avoid embarrassing situations entirely throughout the duration of your life, but on the other hand, it is extremely possible and likely that you will move on from embarrassing experiences quite quickly. If you are more sensitive when feeling embarrassed, you may develop feelings of anxiety or panic whenever you think about it, which can be a regular occurrence if you are prone to rumination. It is important to recognise that you are not alone, and how likely it is that almost everyone you know has also had an embarrassing experience. Try to spin your embarrassing experience into something positive by considering these suggestions:

Strategies to manage embarrassmentEdit

  1. Practice self-compassion: Practising[spelling?] compassion towards yourself is not something that is commonly done amongst individuals, so make this a priority when trying to manage embarrassment. Beating yourself up for making a mistake only puts you in a self-critical mindset. Consider reciting positive affirmations to yourself, such as "my mistakes do not define me". Imagine what you may say to a friend who has experienced something embarrassing themselves. You are likely to tell them that no one is judging them, and this one mistake does not define their worth in society.
  2. Take deep breaths: The use of deep breathing techniques has lead to an effective improvement in the management of stress in daily life (Perciavalle et al., 2016). Breathing deeply can improve physiological effects, such as your heart rate and salivary cortisol levels (Perciavalle et al., 2016), and can slow down the physical symptoms of fear, shame and guilt when experiencing embarrassment. Take time to count your breaths, holding your breath in for a few seconds before breathing out for a few seconds. Continue this cycle until you have calmed down.
  3. Confront the situation, rather than avoid it: It is common for your fight-or-flight response to kick in when experiencing embarrassment. The fight-or-flight response, coined by Walter Cannon in 1915, is the immediate psychological reaction that occurs when a danger or threat to survival is perceived by an organism (Cannon, 1915). It is important to admit that you have made a mistake or correct yourself in a fixable situation. It’s okay to say “I’m embarrassed,” “I messed up,” or “Can we try that again?”. Avoiding the situation altogether may only increase your levels of embarrassment, as well as the shame and anxiety that comes with it.

Humour and embarrassmentEdit

"The essence of the laughable is the incongruous" - William Hazlitt (1818).

There are intrinsic links between humour and embarrassment and that both are crucial for the maintenance of social life (Billig, 2001). Humour plays an enormous role in overcoming a sense of embarrassment. Social analysts have long recognised the importance of embarrassment for maintaining social order. For example, Goffman (1967), who had argued about social order and embarrassment in his essay 'Embarrassment and Social Order’ , has tended to overlook the extent to which humour, especially ridicule, is a necessary component of embarrassment (Billig, 2001). In many occasions, humour is seen to come to the rescue of social bonds, rather than being integral to social order. An example of this is that when someone experiences an embarrassing episode, onlookers may perceive this episode as inherently funny. There is evidence to support that what is labelled as embarrassing can also be considered funny. Miller and Tangney (1994) asked students to recall situations that caused them embarrassment, and situations that caused them shame. They were then asked about the characteristics of each situation. The characteristics that best distinguished the embarrassing situations from the shameful ones were those connected with humour (Billig, 2001). All in all, humour is a necessary component of embarrassment, and it can be used to help diffuse embarrassing situations or deflect from a grimmer or heavier reality. Additionally, humour allows us to cope with stress and anxiety, and reminds us of our humanity.[factual?]


Embarrassment is an important emotion to understand as they [say what?] are significant for adaptive functioning in society. Embarrassment is a self-conscious emotion that is associated with mild to severe levels of discomfort and is characterised by feelings of exposure, abashment, awkwardness, or regret. Embarrassment can be brought on by a range of situations, and these situations can occur when a persons[grammar?] privacy is invaded, when a person is unaware of something, when something awkward occurs, when someone accidentally commits a faux pas, and when a person feels they dont[grammar?] fit in or fit an image that society accepts. Embarrassment can be experienced both in the presence of an external audience or not, as transgression always follows, whether they are perceived by others or observed and appraised by the self. Thus, boundaries for transgressions can also be violations of one's persona or self-concept.

It is important to note that embarrassment is a completely natural and common emotion to experience, and something a person will experience quite often in their lifetime. Though this is true, it should not cause worry, because research suggests many successful ways of coping with embarrassment and the stress that comes with it, such as taking deep breaths, practising self-compassion, and confronting the embarrassing situation rather than avoiding it. Relevant theory also suggests a theoretically significant link between humour and embarrassment. Further research is needed to comprehensively understand the neural correlations of embarrassment, as it has received little study and has been investigated in only six fMRI studies. When it comes to overcoming embarrassment, in many cases, if we are to help ourselves, and others, we must overcome our fear of embarrassment in social situations (Foss and Crenshaw 1978).

See alsoEdit


Babcock, M. K., & Sabini, J. (1990). On differentiating embarrassment from shame. European Journal of Social Psychology, 20(2), 151–169.

Bastin, C., Harrison, B., Davey, C., Moll, J., & Whittle, S. (2016). Feelings of shame, embarrassment and guilt and their neural correlates: A systematic review. Neuroscience &Amp; Biobehavioral

Reviews, 71, 455–471.

Benziman, Y. (2019). Embarrassment. The Journal Of Value Inquiry, 54(1), 77–89.

Billig, M. (2001). Humour and Embarrassment. Journal Of Theory, Culture &Amp; Society, 18(5), 23–43.

Botto, S. V., & Rochat, P. (2018). Sensitivity to the evaluation of others emerges by 24 months. Developmental Psychology, 54(9), 1723–1734.

Dann, O. (1977). A Case Study of Embarrassment. Journal Of The American Psychoanalytic Association, 25(2), 453–470.

Demjén, Z. (2016). Laughing at cancer: Humour, empowerment, solidarity and coping online. Journal Of Pragmatics, 101, 18–30.

Epley, N., Savitsky, K., & Gilovich, T. (2002). Empathy neglect: Reconciling the spotlight effect and the correspondence bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 300–312.

Fenigstein, A., Scheier, M. F., & Buss, A. H. (1975). Public and private self-consciousness: Assessment and theory. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 43(4), 522–527.

Foss, R., & Crenshaw, N. (1978). RISK OF EMBARRASSMENT AND HELPING. Social Behavior And Personality: An International Journal, 6(2), 243–245.

Goffman, E. (1956). Embarrassment and Social Organization. American Journal Of Sociology, 62(3), 264–271.

Higuchi, M., & Fukada, H. (2002). A Comparison of Four Causal Factors of Embarrassment in Public and Private Situations. The Journal Of Psychology, 136(4), 399–406.

Jiang, L., Drolet, A., & Scott, C. (2018). Countering embarrassment-avoidance by taking an observer's perspective. Journal Of Motivation And Emotion, 42(5), 748–762.

Klass, E. (1990). Guilt, Shame, and Embarrassment. Handbook Of Social And Evaluation Anxiety, 385–414.

Krishna, A., Herd, K., & Aydınoğlu, N. (2015). Wetting the bed at twenty‐one: Embarrassment as a private emotion. Journal Of Consumer Psychology, 25(3), 473–486.

Lewis, M. (1995). Embarrassment: The emotion of self-exposure and evaluation. In J. P. Tangney & K. W. Fischer (Eds.), Self-conscious emotions: The psychology of shame, guilt, embarrassment,

and pride (pp. 198–218). Guilford Press.

Lewis, M. (2002). Emotional Competence and Development. Improving Competence Across The Lifespan, 27–36.

Lewis, M., Sullivan, M., Stanger, C., & Weiss, M. (1989). Self Development and Self-Conscious Emotions. Journal Of Child Development, 60(1), 146.

Milosevic, I., & McCabe, R. (2015). Phobias: The Psychology of Irrational Fear: The Psychology of Irrational Fear (1st ed., pp. 179–180). Abc-Clio.

Miller, R. (1986). Embarrassment Causes and Consequences. Shyness, 295–311.

Miller, R. S., & Leary, M. R. (1992). Social sources and interactive functions of emotion: The case of embarrassment. In M. S. Clark (Ed.), Emotion and social behavior (pp. 202–221). Sage

Publications, Inc.

Morita, T., Tanabe, H., Sasaki, A., Shimada, K., Kakigi, R., & Sadato, N. (2013). The anterior insular and anterior cingulate cortices in emotional processing for self-face recognition. Social Cognitive

And Affective Neuroscience, 9(5), 570–579.

Mosher, D., & White, B. (1981). On differentiating shame and shyness. Motivation And Emotion, 5(1), 61–74.

Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Buscemi, A., Di Corrado, D., & Bertolo, L. et al. (2016). The role of deep breathing on stress. Journal Of Neurological Sciences, 38(3), 451–458.

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