If you are a person who is easily embarassed, you may find comfort in what researchers from the University of California, Berkeley report in a paper published online this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: they suggest moderate embarassment is a good thing, because it means you are also likely to be more trustworthy and generous.

Lead author Matthew Feinberg, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in psychology, told the media that “moderate levels of embarassment are signs of virtue”.

“Our data suggests embarrassment is a good thing, not something you should fight,” he added.

Fellow co-author Robb Willer, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley, said embarassment was “part of the social glue that fosters trust and cooperation in everyday life,” and described it as an “emotional signature of a person to whom you can entrust valuable resources”.

The researchers were keen to point out that the moderate type of embarassment they studied is very different from “shame”, the emotion people typically express when caught cheating or performing some other moral transgression.

Moderate embarassment is a “pro-social emotion” whereas shame is a “debilitating social anxiety” maintain the researchers, and they also have different typical gestures and expressions.

People typically express embarassment by gazing downwards to one side while partially covering the face. This is also accompanied by a smirk or grimace.

When people express shame as opposed to embarassment, they typically cover the whole face, said Feinberg.

Pro-social emotions are thought to operate at a direct fundamental level to sustain cooperative relations, bypassing cognition or thinking. This model is in contrast to the behavioral model used by economists which assumes that cognitive optimizing processes are at the heart of what guides socially directed behavior.

The third author is UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, an expert on pro-social emotions.

To arrive at their findings, Feinberg, Willer and Keltner carried out a series of experiments to look at links between embarassment and pro-sociality.

In the first experiment they filmed 60 college students talking about embarassing moments such as making inaccurate assumptions about people based on their appearance (for example assuming a woman who was overweight was expecting a baby), and doing embarassing things like breaking wind in public. When they watched the films, the researchers coded each participant’s story based on how much embarassment they showed.

In a second experiment, the college students played a game called the “Dictator’s Game”. This is used by economists to measure altruism. In this game, each player receives 10 raffle tickets and is invited to keep some and give the rest to a partner. Correlating these results with those of the first experiment, the researchers found that the participants who gave away more raffle tickets were also more likely to have been the ones showing the most embarassment in the video accounts.

In a third experiment the researchers asked another group of 38 American participants they recruited via Craigslist, an online community featuring free classified ads and other information services, how often they felt embarassed. They also took part in exercises like the “Dictator’s Game” to measure their generosity and readiness to cooperate.

In a fourth experiment, the participants observed while a trained actor played a role where he is told he has received top marks in a test. The actor responds showing either embarassment or pride. The participants then played games with the actor, while the researchers measured the level to which they trusted him or not. They then correlated these measures with whether the participants had observed the actor showing pride or embarassment in the earlier part of the experiment.

Each time, the results were the same: participants trusted the actor more if they had observed him showing embarassment, and they trusted him less if they had seen him showing pride.

The researchers concluded that these tests:

“… revealed that observers rated embarrassed targets as being more prosocial and less antisocial relative to targets who displayed either a different emotion or no emotion.”

“In addition, observers were more willing to give resources and express a desire to affiliate with these targets, and these effects were mediated by perceptions of the targets as prosocial,” they added.

Embarrassment signals people’s tendency to be pro-social, said Feinberg:

“You want to affiliate with them more, you feel comfortable trusting them,” he explained.

However, one should be careful in constructing a corollary out of these findings: do they mean that overly confident people aren’t to be trusted? Not so, say the researchers, but they may look into that in the future.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD