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An emotion is an inferred complex sequence of reactions to a stimulus including cognitive evaluations, subjective changes, autonomic and neural arousal, impulses to action, and behavior designed to have an effect upon the stimulus that initiated the complex sequence (Kalat, Shiota, 2007). Wide arrays of various emotions exist within every individual. Researchers have attempted to classify emotions into particular categories to gain a better understanding of emotions related to the human species. Most researchers agree there are a select group of basic emotions-emotions that are fundamentally distinct from one another, which exist across cultures. Yet, there are also other emotions that are more complex and not as easy to understand.

One particular self-evaluative emotion, Embarrassment, occurs in various situations and often depends on the individual’s cognitive appraisal. Embarrassment is the emotion felt when one violates a social convention, thereby drawing unexpected social attention and motivating submissive, friendly behavior that should appease other people (Kalat, Shiota, 2007). Research evidence indicates the functional purpose of embarrassment is to help repair awkward social situations (Kalat, Shiota, 2007). Your display of embarrassment lets other people know you care about their opinion and may coax them into being nice to you after you have done something clumsy, awkward, or inappropriate (Kalat, Shiota, 2007).

Embarrassment, like many other emotions, tends to have unique facial expressions associated with the feeling. Research has found there to be a gaze aversion; a smile control, which inhibits the smile; a non-Duchenne smile-raised cheeks and crow’s feet at the corners of the eyes, that usually communicates “real” positive emotion; head movements down and to the left; a gaze shift; a second smile control; and a second gaze shift (Keltner, Anderson, 2000) (Kalat, Shiota, 2007).. In addition, the “blush” is the most distinctive expression of embarrassment, with temporarily increased blood flow to the face, neck, and upper chest area (Kalat, Shiota, 2007).

Lewis and Douglas (2002) stated there are two forms of embarrassment noted to exist. The first is known as “Exposure embarrassment”, which reflects exposure of the self when the individual is the object of attention of others. This also includes being complicated, being pointed at unexpectedly, or being asked to dance in the presence of another person and success embarrassment. The second type of embarrassment is “Evaluative embarrassment”, which occurs at the outcome of individuals negative evaluation of their behavior relative to a given standard, rule, or goal. This is seen as a less intense form of shame.

Exposure embarrassment comes into existence during the later part of the second year of life, while self-consciousness is starting to develop. Evaluative embarrassment soon follows in the third year of life (Lewis, Douglas, 2002). Not until about age 2 do children show evidence of self-conscious emotion (Kalat, Shiota, 2007). Signs of embarrassment become more intense and more frequent as children grow older, reaching a peak in their teenage years (Kalat, Shiota, 2007). Adolescents face many difficult and embarrassing situations during their teenage years, and tend to be more concerned with their social status (Kalat, Shiota, 2007). Adolescents are highly concerned with how they are perceived by their peers, and in turn are more aware of their self-conscious emotions (Kalat, Shiota, 2007).

A study conducted by Lewis and Ramsay (2002) focused their research on an aspect of Evaluative embarrassment. They found reactivity to stress might be an important aspect of temperament related to negative self-evaluation. Negative self-evaluation is often a determining factor of evaluative embarrassment. Differences in adrenocortical functioning have proven to be a sensitive index of individual differences in stress reactivity. A greater cortisol and behavioral response to stress was related to the earlier onset of self-awareness in the middle of the second year of life. Their research indicates a relationship between a higher cortisol response to stress and the greater expression of the self-conscious emotions of evaluative embarrassment that reflected negative self-evaluation (Lewis, Douglas, 2002).

Researchers have continued to conduct studies to specifically evaluate, Who is embarrassed by what? Theories and Models have been proposed on the mechanisms mediating embarrassment to answer that question (Higuchi, Fukada, 2002). Higuchi and Fukada (2002) have established 5 models in their study, which are found common in most research surrounding Embarrassment. The first model is the “loss of self-esteem” model, stating a negative evaluation from others and the loss of self-esteem cause embarrassment. Then there is the “social evaluation” model, which states undesired evaluations from others cause embarrassment. The “personal standards” model states embarrassment occurs when one realizes that his or her behavior is in some way inconsistent with his or her own idiosyncratic ideals. The “dramaturgic model” states embarrassment occurs because of “the perception that there is no character that one can coherently perform” and therefore because of the disruptive social interaction consequent to it. Lastly there is the “transgression of others’ expectations” model, which states when people present a self that transgresses others’ expectations, or predicts such a state, people perceive negative evaluations from others and therefore feel embarrassed.

Example - Research

This framework was used in a study conducted by Costa et al. (2001) to assess the impact of the presence of unfamiliar others on the experience and display of embarrassment. Their general hypothesis was that nonverbal behavior indicative of embarrassment would mirror the subjective experience of embarrassment. Specifically, it was anticipated that self-reported embarrassment and nonverbal expressions of embarrassment would be greater when participants were in the company of others than in the alone condition.

The researchers used 21 female and 16 male university students. The participants were seated in a room with two different conditions, once alone and again with additional viewers (who were not participants). Each time they were seated in the room a total of 13 slides were shown to the participant .The slides included 3 neutral and 9 emotionally loaded slides, such as nudity and sexual activity. At the end of both conditions the participants answered a questionnaire. The participants were asked to report how they felt while viewing the slides by rating the following emotions: embarrassment, shame, anxiety, disgust, joy, interest, and surprise. Responses were a made by circling a number on a 7-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “very much”. In addition, they also coded non verbal behavior: lip movement, lip corner depress, lip bite, lip pucker, lip stretch, gaze shift, head down, hand movement, shifting posture, chair rotation.

Results were as expected, the presence of others induced greater embarrassment, shame, and anxiety among participants, but this was only the case when viewing nude sides, and did not apply to the erotic couples of the neutral slides. Nonverbal behavior confirmed the same results. Although the presence of unfamiliar audience increased the subjective experience of embarrassment, shame, and anxiety in response to viewing nude slides, there was less behavioral manifestation of these emotions when an audience was present.

The research results imply the presence of social inhibition of expression. Although the results confirmed a feeling of discomfort the individuals were able to inhibit their behavioral responses due to the presence of additional audience members. Emotional research is often times hard to conduct due to its reliance on self-report. This particular article confirms the discrepancies found between what individuals report they feel as opposed to how they actually feel; this is often done unconsciously.

Example - Real-life

Many embarrassing situations occur to individuals every day. A real life example that can be used to illustrate embarrassment is a widely publicized scandal that occurred in 1999, which was President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. The affair was publicized to the entire world and ultimately led to his impeachment. This particular type of embarrassment can be applied to both types of embarrassment-evaluative and exposure. An Evaluative type of embarrassment occurred because President Clinton had a negative evaluation of his behavior relative to a given standard of marriage by the United States. In addition, there was exposure embarrassment because he was exposed and the object of attention for the entire world. This can also be applied toward a particular model presented earlier, the transgression of others’ expectations model. President Clinton presented a certain self-image and the country had certain expectations. Once he perceived those negative evaluations from others he became embarrassed, which didn’t occur until he was exposed to the whole world.

As you can see there are various situational factors that affect the trigger of embarrassments for every individual. We have reviewed the current methodologies presented to better understand why someone may feel embarrassed. More research will continuously be developed as evolution continues to occur. The human species tends to develop emotions based on what is functional for that time period.


Anderson, C., Keltner, D. (2000). Saving Face for Darwin: The Functions and Use of Embarrassment. American Psychological Society, 9(6) 187-192.

Bitti. P.E., Costa, M., Dinsbach, W., Manstead, S.R. (2001). Social Presence, Embarrassment, and Nonverbal Behavior. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 25(4) 225-240.

Fukada, H., Higuchi, M. (2002). A Comparison of Four Causal Factors of Embarrassment in Public and Private Situations. The Journal of Psychology, 136(4) 399-406.

Kalat, J.W., Shiota, M. (2007) Emotion. In V.K. &J. Case (Eds.), Thomas Wadsworth , 226-234.

Lewis, M., Ramsay, D. (2002). Cortisol Response to Embarrassment and Shame. Journal of Child Development, 73(4), 1034-1045.

Meyerowitz, M., Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., Stein, J. (2000). Who is Embarrassed by What? Journal of Cognition and Emotion, 14(2) 213-240.

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