Mental Health

Feelings Of Embarrassment Are Countered By Taking An Observer's Perspective

The fear of embarrassment or public humiliation, often observed in people who have social anxiety, can hinder daily activities. Such distress can be alleviated by training your mind to think in a certain way, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Led by Li Jiang and his colleagues, the study titled "Countering embarrassment-avoidance by taking an observer's perspective" was published in Springer’s journal Motivation and Emotion on Tuesday.

“Embarrassment prevents us from asking advice about what we should do, for example, about our mounting mortgage bills or unplanned pregnancies. In many cases, if we are to help ourselves, and others, we must overcome our fear of embarrassment in social situations,” said Jiang.

Basing their research on consumer theory, the team conducted three studies comprising of 180, 107 and 220 participants respectively. Various factors such as perspective, intentions, and personal discomfort were measured in the participants.

The first study examined reactions from participants after viewing an advertisement of an actor accidentally farting in a yoga class. The second study surveyed volunteers who opted to talk to researchers to help reduce the stigma of getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases. The third study questioned participants about an advertisement where a man accidentally farts in front of a potential love interest. 

Upon analysis, it was found that people who were highly self-conscious in public experienced distress while watching the advertisements as they were inclined to take an actor’s perspective in an embarrassing situation. 

But levels of self-consciousness experienced a drop when they were aligned to picture themselves as mere observers of the situation. This was noted in the third study which used two different versions of ad copy for the same advertisement. One group of participants read, "Rip. Accidentally passing gas in front of a crush is one of the most embarrassing experiences. Guaranteed to linger forever." while a second group also read an additional line that stated, "Others will know what it’s like. Put yourself in their shoes…would you giggle? Would you be horrified? Would you stare?"

The authors explain that self-conscious people experience heightened feelings of paranoia, feeling that they are under a public spotlight and focusing too much on the situation. The main hypothesis of the study is that encouraging the viewpoint of the observer could counteract the anticipation of harsher evaluations. This appears to reduce embarrassment-avoidance i.e. the overwhelming tendency to avoid embarrassment.

“Our research is relevant to those situations in which marketers want to inoculate consumers against a fear of embarrassment and encourage them to take actions they might otherwise avoid,” Jiang added.

While the study examines the tactic in a mild and voluntary form, it is important to note that psychology considers severe dissociation to be a disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), dissociative disorders are characterized by an increasing detachment from reality, emotional numbness, memory loss and lack of self-identity. It is typically caused as a response to traumatic events such as long-term abuse, natural disasters, loss of a loved one etc.