A new study shows that training your mind to be an observer, rather than actively participating in an embarrassing situation, can help you overcome humiliating or distressing feelings.
Some people have such an intense fear of embarrassment that they go to great lengths to avoid everyday situations. This could include not asking a shop assistant a question about a new product for fear of sounding stupid, or not taking an embarrassing yet potentially life-saving medical test.
“Embarrassment prevents us from asking advice about what we should do, for example, about our mounting mortgage bills or unplanned pregnancies,” said researcher Li Jiang of Carnegie Mellon University, who led the study. “In many cases, if we are to help ourselves, and others, we must overcome our fear of embarrassment in social situations.”
Jiang and her colleagues conducted three sets of studies, each involving different groups of students from a large university in the U.S.
In the first study, the researchers asked participants to respond to an advertisement showing someone accidentally farting in a yoga class. The second study tested participants’ reactions to an advertisement about getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases. The third study questioned participants about an advertisement where a man accidentally farts in front of a potential love interest.
In each study, the researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that adopting an observer’s perspective can reduce feelings of embarrassment.
One of the findings was that people who are extremely self-conscious in public are more likely to take an actor’s perspective in an embarrassing situation, even if this concerns others, according to the researchers.
Self-conscious people will even feel distressed when watching an advertisement with an embarrassment appeal, they note.
However, levels of self-consciousness drop in these people when they are able to picture themselves as observers of a situation, and not as being directly involved in it.
“Our research shows that devising strategies to successfully reduce embarrassment avoidance is complicated,” Jiang said. “This is because consumers will react differently to persuasion tactics depending on their level of public self-consciousness and their amount of available cognitive resources.”
She believes the results have significant implications for marketers who often use potentially embarrassing situations in their advertisements to entice consumers to buy their products.
“Embarrassment avoidance forms the basis for attempts to motivate consumers to buy a wide variety of products, from laundry detergents that can resolve rings around someone’s collar, to dishwasher liquid that can remove unsightly spots on dishes,” she said. “Our research is relevant to those situations in which marketers want to inoculate consumers against a fear of embarrassment and encourage them to take actions they might otherwise avoid.”
The study was published in Springer’s journal Motivation and Emotion.