Why being easily embarrassed makes people like you more

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For those of us with a clumsy disposition and a constant fear of saying or doing the wrong thing - otherwise known as English people - embarrassment is a constant companion. But that might be a surprisingly good thing.

Researchers at UC Berkeley have found that easily embarrassed people are more likely to be viewed positively than their more confident peers. Specifically, those in a state of perpetual mortification are seen as more generous and more trustworthy in the eyes of others. The researchers stress that they're not talking about debilitating levels of social anxiety - shame, basically - but it seems the ability to recognize a mistake and feel reasonably silly about it can be seen as a virtue.

To measure how people view embarrassment, the researchers ran a number of experiments. Some focused on gauging participants' general level of embarrassment by having them recount awkward memories, like farting in public or mistaking an overweight woman as pregnant.


The participants then took part in an old psych experiment standby known as the Dictator Game, in which participants are given ten lottery tickets and asked to share as many as they want with a partner. Those who showed higher levels of embarrassment consistently gave away a greater share of tickets, suggesting a more generous temperament...or, you know, they were too embarrassed about looking like a selfish jerk that they felt like they had to give away more tickets. The end result is the same.

In another experiments, participants watched an actor being told he had received a perfect score on a test. In some of the trials, the actor responded with pride, while in others he seemed embarrassed about his conspicuously good performance. The test participants then interacted with the actors in games designed to measure how much they trusted him. Those who had seen the embarrassed performance were more likely to place trust in the actor than those who had seen the proud version.


Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, one of the three members of the research team, explains just what's so great about being embarrassed:

"Embarrassment is one emotional signature of a person to whom you can entrust valuable resources. It's part of the social glue that fosters trust and cooperation in everyday life."


His colleague Matthew Feinberg observes that people just seem to "want to affiliate with them more", and that people are more likely to feel comfortable trusting the easily embarrassed. It almost makes living in constant terror of any and all social situations worth it. (Or maybe that's just me.) Of course, there's an obvious flip side to all this - are people less likely to trust the extremely confident? The researchers say they didn't examine that this time around, but that's a question they hope to investigate in the very near future.

Via the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Image by quinn.anaya on Flickr.