Social distance, the perceived psychological or emotional proximity between individuals in a social context, plays a key role in embarrassment, according to new research published in BMC Psychology. The study provides evidence that both the fear of being judged and the feeling of being less connected contribute to how embarrassed people feel in different social situations.
The study aimed to investigate the unique nature of embarrassment as a self-conscious emotion and understand how it is influenced by the social distance between individuals and bystanders.
Previous research has shown that embarrassment is different from other negative self-conscious emotions and is strongly affected by the presence of real or imagined bystanders. The researchers wanted to explore how social distance impacts embarrassment by examining the cognitive processes of fear of negative evaluation and attachment security.
“My research interests are in self-consciousness and social interaction. Embarrassment is an important and interesting self-conscious emotion that has some positive social functions,” said study author Haoyue Qian of the Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“However, compared to other self-conscious emotions, it has been investigated very little and the cognitive processes behind it are unclear. Some researchers have speculated that the difference between embarrassment and shame is due to their different cognitive contributions.”
“If we can find these different cognitive contributions and the associated influencing factors, the state of shame can be transferred to the feeling of embarrassment, which is a temporary and less negative emotion. This will have implications for psychotherapy.”
The research consisted of two parts.
In Study 1, the researchers examined whether the intensity of embarrassment varied systematically with different levels of social distance. They recruited 159 college students and divided them into three conditions: short social distance (close friend), medium social distance (casual friend), and long social distance (stranger).
The participants were presented with 10 embarrassment scenarios, where they imagined themselves as the protagonist with different types of bystanders. After each scenario, participants rated their level of embarrassment on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all embarrassed) to 7 (very embarrassed).
The results showed that the reported social distance differed significantly across the three conditions. Participants in the long social distance condition reported the largest social distance, while those in the short social distance condition reported the smallest social distance. The manipulation of social distance was deemed effective.
Importantly, the analysis also revealed a significant main effect of social distance on participants’ embarrassment. Specifically, participants reported the highest level of embarrassment when facing a stranger, a slightly lower level when facing a casual friend, and the lowest level when facing a close friend.
In Study 2, the researchers investigated the mediating roles of fear of negative evaluation and state attachment security in the relationship between social distance and embarrassment. The study involved 155 college students. The procedures of Study 2 were similar to those of Study 1, with participants rating their fear of negative evaluation and state attachment security before rating their embarrassment in each embarrassing scenario.
To measure the participants’ real-time fear of negative evaluation, the researchers used a shortened version of the classical Fear of Negative Evaluation scale. Two questions from the scale (“I worry about leaving a bad impression on others” and “I worry about what others think about me, even though I know that others’ thoughts are of little importance”) were selected as representative questions. Participants were asked to rate their real-time feelings of fear of negative evaluation on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much).
To measure the participants’ real-time feelings of state attachment security, the participants were presented with four words expressing a sense of attachment security and asked to rate the extent to which they felt warm, safe, supported, and cared for when imagining a close friend, casual friend, or stranger around them. Ratings were done on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much).
Consistent with the findings of Study 1, the results of Study 2 showed a significant main effect of social distance on embarrassment. The researchers also found that fear of negative evaluation and state attachment security played a role in mediating the relationship between social distance and embarrassment.
In other words, when people felt more distant from others, they were more likely to worry about being negatively judged and feel less secure in their relationships. These feelings of fear and insecurity then contributed to higher levels of embarrassment.
“In life, everyone has the potential to be awkward in front of others, even in front of friends,” Qian told PsyPost. “When the awkwardness happens, please ask comfort and help from your friends instead of blaming yourself excessively. This way you will be able to laugh at the embarrassment without wallowing in shame and low self-esteem.”
The researchers believe that seeking attachment for security is a fundamental cognitive process that underlies embarrassment. This process of seeking attachment may help explain the differences between different negative self-conscious emotions.
For example, in a state of shame, when people feel a strong sense of inadequacy, they tend to avoid being touched by others. However, in a state of embarrassment, the presence of close others actually makes people seek security and support from them. This suggests that the activation of the attachment security system plays a role in determining whether someone feels shame or embarrassment.
The researchers propose that embarrassment is a temporary and less damaging emotion compared to shame because it involves activating the cognitive process associated with seeking attachment for security. This cognitive process may help individuals cope with the awkward situation and alleviate the negative effects of the embarrassing event.
“Our research suggests that fearing of negative evaluation and seeking attachment for security may be advancing in parallel when embarrassment occurs. I believe that this finding needs more investigation,” Qian added.
“Another interesting feature of embarrassment is that the feeling of embarrassment does not only happen to the protagonist but also to the observer. What is the cognitive process behind the observer’s embarrassment? This is a very important research question.”
The study, “Social distance of bystanders affects people’s embarrassment via changing fear of negative evaluation and feelings of attachment security“, was authored by Hongjuan Tang, Lin Li, Li Zheng, Xiuyan Guo, and Haoyue Qian.