Researchers have long considered embarrassment a social emotion. We feel embarrassed when we do something silly or inappropriate in front of a group of people—and that blush that flushes our cheeks functions as an autonomic apology for our transgression.
But a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that embarrassment can be experienced just as intensely in private. That is, many of us feel embarrassment whether or not anyone is looking.
That might seem intuitive to anyone who’s ever felt ashamed of their messy bedroom, or chided themselves for burning a dinner for one. However, researchers have only recently started to understand why we experience embarrassment even when no one’s watching.
In part, it has to do with our own high standards—the study found that people feel privately embarrassed when they don’t live up to their own expectations. New York magazine explains that private embarrassment occurs when you judge yourself and “decide that your behavior isn’t quite lining up with your self-image.”
The study identified four categories of embarrassment: public transgression, private transgression, self-appraisal, and appraisal by others. The embarrassment we feel in private obviously involves self-appraisal. But even public embarrassment can be driven more by our own disappointment in ourselves than our concern about what others think. That is, we can experience private embarrassment even in public.
In general, embarrassment studies are a fascinating—and sometimes funny—field in psychology. Descriptions of studies sometimes sound more like pranks than science.
For example, according to the Monitor on Psychology, one study asked participants to sing out loud, then made them watch a video of themselves singing without musical accompaniment. In another study, meanwhile, researchers pretended to track participants’ eye movements while they looked at photos, then informed them they’d spent an inordinate amount of time looking at the crotch of a person in one photo.
But though the studies may sound, well, embarrassing, they’ve revealed important insights into the causes and functions of embarrassment. For instance, while private embarrassment may occur when we violate our own standards, public embarrassment can “grease” social interactions, and even make us more “pro-social.” The Monitor on Psychology explains that "group living has been important to us for a long time, and even if you don't intentionally want to violate a social norm, you sometimes do. Embarrassment serves the function of immediately and strongly displaying, ‘Oops, I didn't mean to do that.'"