Good news for those easily embarrassed: that troublesome aspect of personality, according to new research, is actually a sign of trustworthiness and generosity.
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley determined moderate levels of embarrassment are perceived as a sign of virtue.
“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,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, Ph.D., a coauthor of the study.
The study is published in this month’s online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The findings can be applied to employment and personal settings as easily embarrassed individuals make cooperative and reliable team members.
Moreover, this character trait bodes well for dating and relationship development as subjects who were more easily embarrassed reported higher levels of monogamy, researchers said.
“Our data suggests embarrassment is a good thing, not something you should fight,” said Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper.
Researchers point out that the moderate type of embarrassment they examined should not be confused with debilitating social anxiety or with “shame,” for example at being caught cheating.
While the most typical gesture of embarrassment is a downward gaze to one side while partially covering the face and either smirking or grimacing, a person who feels shame, as distinguished from embarrassment, will typically cover the whole face, Feinberg said.
In the study, researchers used video testimonials, economic trust games and surveys to gauge the relationship between embarrassment and pro-sociality.
In the one experiment, 60 college students were videotaped recounting embarrassing moments such as public flatulence or making incorrect assumptions based on appearances.
Typical sources of embarrassment included mistaking an overweight woman for being pregnant or a disheveled person for being a panhandler. During the admission process, researchers coded each video testimonial based on the level of embarrassment the subjects showed.
The college students also participated in the “Dictator Game,” which is used in economics research to measure altruism.
For example, each was given 10 raffle tickets and asked to keep a share of the tickets and give the remainder to a partner. Results showed that those who showed greater levels of embarrassment tended to give away more of their raffle tickets, indicating greater generosity.
In another part of the study, researchers surveyed 38 Americans recruited through Craigslist. Survey participants were asked how often they feel embarrassed.
They were also gauged for their general cooperativeness and generosity through such exercises as the aforementioned game.
In one additional experiment, participants watched a trained actor being told he received a perfect score on a test. The actor responded with either embarrassment or pride. They then played games with the actor that measured their trust in him based on whether he had shown pride or embarrassment.
The association between embarrassment signals and people’s tendency to be pro-social was found time after time, say the researchers.
“You want to affiliate with them more,” said Feinberg, “you feel comfortable trusting them.”
A follow-up question researchers may address in the future is the contrary assumption — that is, can one infer from the results that overly confident people aren’t trustworthy?