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What Is the Purpose of Embarrassment?

Embarrassment is a painful but important emotional state. Most researchers believe that its purpose is to make people feel badly about their social or personal mistakes as a form of internal (or societal) feedback, so that they learn not to repeat the error. The accompanying physiological changes, including blushing, sweating, or stammering, may signal to others that someone actually recognizes their error, and so is not cold-hearted or oblivious. In fact, studies have shown that people who act embarrassed after committing a “bad act”—like knocking over a store display—are perceived as more likable than those who don't, regardless of whether or not anything is actually done to make amends for the mistake.

The Difference Between Shame and Embarrassment

Embarrassment and shame are both "self-conscious" emotions experienced with or without other people's knowledge of the embarrassed person's real (or imagined) failings.

Guilt is similar to shame and embarrassment, but unlike either, it tends to focus specifically on what one has done, rather than on who one is.

Embarrassment colors the gap between how one wishes to be perceived and how one is actually perceived by others or—much to a person's chagrin—how they revealed themself.

Shame carries moral overtones that embarrassment does not, and characterizes a sense of character failing rather than loss of social status or image.

Can You Feel Embarrassed For Someone Else?

It is possible to feel embarrassed on behalf of other people, a phenomenon known as vicarious embarrassment. It is possible to feel acute social pain in the wake of others' social blunders, regardless of whether the offending party is aware of their behavior or whether the behavior itself is deliberate or accidental. VIcarious embarrassment arises from our capacity for empathy.

Conversely, the "vicarious spotlight effect" refers to the common phenomenon of being self-conscious about or embarrassed by a person with whom we are closely aligned in the eyes of others, such as a romantic partner or family member.

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