Embarrassment is good for us

A study found participants viewed the embarrassment in others as ‘a form of non-verbal apology’.

I was a shy child who blushed easily. But blush isn’t really the right word for it. Blush implies a sort of gentle sweep of fetching pink that might kiss the cheeks in a moment of giggly embarrassment and make one resemble a flower.

That is not what would happen to me.

At the first sign of embarrassment, heat would rise from my feet upwards towards my head at unstoppable speed, like a volcano erupting up my spine. My hands would start sweating and shaking, my neck and chest would start turning a darker shade of red, and by the time the so-called blush hit my face I was the colour of a baboon’s puce bum, nose blazing like Rudolph and a mist of sweat rapidly turning into rivulets that would run down my face.

In later years, the splotches would be salmon-pink as I tried valiantly to hide the blush with face makeup — to no avail.

I was in dread it would happen, but the occurrence was unavoidable at school because of a cruel practice in several classes of forced reading out loud. Standing in front of the class, I was frequently humiliated. My mind would go blank (a common symptom of anxiety), I would turn red, stutter and drip. I can hardly breathe even now, reliving the memory of it and what teachers used to be allowed to do to kids before some semblance of humanity entered the system.

Humiliation is an awful emotion. Like its cousins anger, fear and hurt, embarrassment equally contributes to a release of negative chemicals such as the stress hormone cortisol, which can compromise the immune system if released frequently.

However, until recently, humiliation has gone largely unnoticed as a contributor to poor health; it has taken the controversy over the consequences of bullying and social-media shaming to finally bring it to light.

In one study by the University of Amsterdam, electroencephalograms recorded participants while they were made to feel angry, happy or humiliated. The humiliation scenario took the form of a blind date who took one look at them standing there, turned around and quickly walked away.

Researchers were able to measure participants’ responses in terms of whether their brains registered a negative effect and how intense this was.

The study concluded that participants’ responses to humiliation were more negative than to anger, and more intense than to happiness, which goes a long way to explaining why some people shamed on social media can become severely depressed or anxious.

But it’s not all bad news. There is a biological purpose to feeling embarrassed that has positive spin-offs.

With me, the thing I hated most was the fact my blushing drew attention to the humiliation I was feeling. I couldn’t hide it. But this transparency has sociologists and psychologists arguing that embarrassment is an evolutionary function that allows us to gain the trust of our peers and colleagues.

How so? It shows that we feel bad for being socially awkward or making a mistake, not fitting in or not being perfect — in other words: “I care, I want to belong, I want to be liked and validated and be a participatory part of your tribe. And I will do what it takes.” It says: “I am human. But I want to do better next time because you matter to me.”

In other words it helps mammals stay in the tribe, thus be considered desirable members of society, whereas arrogant people may not be seen as team players.

A few years ago a well-known study, Flustered and Faithful: Embarrassment as a Signal of Pro­sociality, at the University of California, Berkeley, proved this hypothesis. Psychology department researchers Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer and Dacher Keltner tested the hypothesis that people who felt and displayed more embarrassment elicited more trust and co-operation from others because they were seen to be more caring. The results were gleaned from experiments that used video testimonials, economic trust games and surveys.

They found participants viewed the embarrassment in others as “a form of non-verbal apology and appeasement gesture”, hence they judged those who expressed it a signal of “prosociality” and commitment to social relationships (that is, more trustworthy and co-operative, less selfish and cunning than proud or arrogant people) and people wanted to share study group with them.

Subjects who were more easily chastened reported higher levels of monogamy and fidelity, according to the study, and were more altruistic and generous in certain of the games. “Moderate levels of embarrassment are signs of virtue,” lead author Feinberg said. “Our data suggests embarrassment is a good thing, not something you should fight.”

The researchers concluded it was part of the social adhesive that fostered community, although they were quick to point out that the study was exploring only average embarrassment or humiliation, not severe shame. For instance, the body language of embarrassment is blushing, eyes down to one side, grimace, or awkward grin, perhaps giggly, as opposed to the huge debilitating shame we feel when caught cheating or doing something aberrant (full-face covering, obvious phys­iological signs of trauma).

The other upside of humiliation and embarrassment comes from rebellion. The worst humiliation in my childhood was when forced to stand in front of the class reading or talking in Hebrew or French. I’m mildly dyslexic and Hebrew is read from back to front, so you can imagine how the horror of normal public presentation was compounded for me. And as for those French acutes and grave accent marks … Yakes!

However, rather than hide forever and never read in front of people again, I trained myself to become a public speaker — albeit in English — and now often get up in front of thousands of people.

I still remember the fear each time I go out there. But embarrassment can drive us. Many hugely successful people suffered ongoing humiliation at school because of dyslexia or learning disabilities including Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein and Tom Cruise. Many chief executives I’ve interviewed talk of the shame of being called out on it. But people go on to conquer that fear out of a need to self-actualise.

So humiliation as a motivator can never be underestimated. I still often stumble over words and numbers when I talk. I still get embarrassed, although I don’t turn as red. But I always remind myself as I trip over that I’m in good company. And it’s great to know (and let kids today know) that my disadvantage was always an advantage with audiences after all.

Reader comments Republished from THE AUSTRALIAN




‘Sociologists and psychologists argue that embarrassment is an evolutionary function…’ -what a fairy tale! Can these professionals explain or even understand the complex physiology of neural control of blood vessels in the face and neck emotionally driven from the human brain. To suggest that this came about by accident over a million or so years strains my credulity.



Ruth, do yourself a favour and look up Brene Brown’s ‘Men, Women and Worthiness’. I know you’ll find it fascinating.



More and more Rith’s articles meander around her upbringing. Her articles used to be interesting, now they’re just rubbish.



@John @Brian I thought the article was informative.  No need for rudeness.  Constructive criticism can be articulated in a far more polite manner



Another dimension of humiliation is “shame.”

Shaming, being ashamed and a sense of shame was standard practice in earlier generations of then-fully-civilised Western societies.

People understood that shaming and being ashamed is a vital ingredient in a complex psycho-social lubricant that ensures that people can work together to honestly determine the truth and therefore the best outcomes.

‘Shaming’ is today largely taboo and truth apparently is irrelevant.

And then we wonder why our society is relentlessly sliding towards social chaos. (By ‘we’ I mean people who are intelligent and properly informed, thus knowing and understanding the reality of our disastrous national ‘slide’.)

The ‘self-esteem’ madness that has gripped Australia’s education systems since the 1980’s has abolished the sense of ‘shame’ that would have automatically manifested for having made a silly, immoral or wrongful mistake.

As a result we now have hordes of arrogant, ego-controlled young Australians who are, for example, in far too many cases, unemployable.

Their being unemployable is only one outcome of their now-shameless attitudes and behaviour that would, in a sane society, have been considered shameful and for which they would have been ashamed.

And having become ashamed, they would have resolved to ‘never do that again!’

It no longer works that way in our society today.

Excessive self-esteem also manifests in the arrogant ‘me first’ syndrome which has some terrible consequences, road rage, terrible car accidents and younger people casually abusing or even assaulting the elderly being examples.


All of which is to say that if humiliation is ‘unhealthy’ at the biological level, also serves to create physical discomfort sufficient to ‘naturally’ dissuade the person from repeating their ‘stupid’ mistake, thus contributing to human progress, both individually and therefore in in the broader social context.

In contrast, a society – yes, like Australia – that has eliminated the concept of shame may well be unwittingly facilitating the propagation and progress of arrogant stupidity.

Good grief!  What am I saying?!  (i.e. writing)

“May well be”?

Methinks ‘definitely has’ is far more accurate.



The Left are always saying they find certain things like tough border control “embarrassing”. They often add that this is because international onlookers are judging us negatively. This embarrassment is phony; it is a manipulative attempt to make us feel shame from social pressure from alleged outside authority – in this case foreign Leftists. This embarrassment is also a way for the Left to express their virtue. In truth the Left are shameless; you would think being wrong about everything and making things worse would give them reason to feel bad and change their ideas. Instead their bloated sense of moral superiority means they just double down on the same failed ideas and continue to lie and bully. Why doesn’t society seem to call out the Left on this?

Antipostmodernism Stephen



I’m sorry, but this article is ridiculous.

Humiliation is a feeling – it is not an emotion.

If these authors must write about trivia, then perhaps they could get their basic facts right.

The Other Andrew



@Andrew Huh? A feeling not an emotion?
I am utterly not embarrassed to ask you to …. “please explain”…….. the difference between the two.

Let’s hope this question causes you to now experience ….er, um …. feel ….the emotion.



Emotion: feel angry, loving etc.

Not: feel cheated, ridiculous etc.

The latter terms are not emotions per se.

The Other Andrew



I’m not sure I’m convinced. To be an evolutionary winner, convincing the opposite sex you’re an alpha is more important than gaining the trust of buddies.

But the common phobia of public speaking – that’s very likely a survival adaptation. Most of history did not have legal protection of free speech. Jesus was not the first or the last person to be executed for saying things out loud that those in power didn’t want said.



“Humiliation is an awful emotion. Like its cousins anger, fear and hurt, embarrassment”

In reality it comes from a fear of what others think of you which is never constructive and leads to the ‘I’m a victim’ mentality of so many who frequent social media today. The opposite is not arrogance but confidence. An acceptance of ones self and a focus on personal values rather than comparing yourself with everyone else and trying to meet everyone else’s supposed expectations.

Once the embarrassment is dealt with then the symptoms disappear. This simple cognition should be taught to school children instead of the victim based ‘anti bullying’ programs that proliferate. Embarrassment is a prison of our own making and we each have the key to open the door. Too many choose not to and then blame others for their condition.

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