When looking at any aspect of our psychology, it is always useful to think of it in terms of our evolutionary history. Humans did not become the complex creatures they are by accident: nearly every aspect of our biology and our psychology evolved to be the way it is and was selected for its survival value. It either helps us survive, or it helps us to pass on our genes.
This is why we get frightened and run away from danger. It’s why we get jealous and try to acquire more wealth and status. And it’s why we are so protective of our young.
But understanding what the survival value of embarrassment could possibly be seems like a difficult task. Embarrassment just makes something that is already awkward, that much worse.
So how can it possibly be healthy? How could it have helped our cavemen and women ancestors to survive and thrive?
The theory is that embarrassment is a visual indication that we recognize social norms. When we do something that would normally be considered socially unacceptable, or strange, we respond by blushing and looking awkward. This in turn shows to others that we care about social norms and that we understand the context. In turn, that suggests that we are more trustworthy and more attuned to the culture that we’re a part of. This can make us a more likely ally and a more appealing mate.
The latter is also one potential explanation for why we tend to get embarrassed when we’re talking to someone we’re attracted to – it actually makes us more appealing and thus it proved to be adaptive for passing on our DNA. It seems to work for the characters that Hugh Grant plays in all his movies!
And on another side note, this is also thought to be roughly the mechanism behind shame and guilt. These are both examples of ‘prosociality’ and they’re what Freud would describe as being ‘superego driven’, in that they are dictated by the social code of our given culture. The full research paper goes into much greater detail. Here, it was found that people who experienced more embarrassment were also viewed as being more trustworthy and generous.
Embarrassment and You
So that’s why embarrassment may be a useful emotion in terms of our evolutionary history. But this says nothing about how it can be useful to you personally. Surely in our own lives, embarrassment is nothing but awkward and unpleasant?
The key, perhaps, is to listen to your embarrassment but not let it rule you. If you feel embarrassed of something you’ve done or are doing, then don’t be afraid to let it show to a small degree. People will respond well to it, it will humanise you and it will make you more likeable on the whole.
But at the same time, recognize that embarrassment is just as arbitrary as the social norms that create it. There are things that we very much shouldn’t be doing in public and a little embarrassment and shame can help us to all get along. But this ends up going too far if that embarrassment is preventing you from doing the things you want to do and from being the person you want to be. Embarrassment is only sometimes still adaptive and it’s your job to work out when that is.
And you can also flip the entire concept on its head if you want to take advantage of the embarrassment reflex. Because according to certain pick-up artists, you can actually also make yourself more attractive by demonstrating a disregard for social norms.
The argument is that if you display unusual and brazen behavior, then you can actually demonstrate that you are above the social norms and that you are confident enough to break out of them. In turn, this can make you seem as though you must know something that others do not, as though you must have some reason to be extra confident. The assumption is that you must be a great catch in order to be confident enough to be so obviously awkward without showing embarrassment. This is called ‘peacocking’.
So on this occasion it appears that science and the pickup artist community disagree. Perhaps it comes down to the difference between being attractive and being likeable (two things that certainly do not always go hand in hand). Either way, it seems that embarrassment can be a positive force as long as you know how to use it!
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