The Appeal of Embarrassment: Blushing, fidgeting, looking down—the more contrite a wrongdoer looks, the more likable he seems

July 26, 2013, 7:03 p.m. ET

The Appeal of Embarrassment

Blushing, fidgeting, looking down—the more contrite a wrongdoer looks, the more likable he seems

ROBERT M. SAPOLSKY

Anthony Weineris front-page news again for all the wrong reasons. Just when he seemed to have turned a corner and become a credible candidate for mayor of New York City, he is embroiled in yet another flap over sexting. The usual has ensued: the news conference, the grim apology to disappointed supporters, the wife at his side amid murmurs of “how can she stick with him?” Watching the writhing of a celebrity caught doing something bad has become an American pastime. Regardless of the transgression, and whether it concerns a politician, athlete, actor or religious leader, there is great consistency to the spectacle of a public figure trying to seem contrite.Amid the miscreant’s passionate claims of shame, guilt, humiliation and deep, deep regret, any reasonable cynic may wonder, “Does this guy actually feel bad about what he did?”

A great way to gain insights into what is going on in someone’s head is to look at what’s happening in his or her body. This is particularly true when examining bodily functions that are “autonomic,” which is to say, normally outside our conscious control.

Consider an individual who feels terrible about violating a social norm—having been, say, hideously flatulent at the key point of a wedding ceremony. Autonomic responses in this person’s body would likely include vasodilation of certain capillary beds and altered sweat gland activity. In other words, the person would blush and get all clammy. Moreover, the person’s body movements and facial expressions would change in an unconscious manner—fidgeting, averted gaze, head angled downward and sideways. What’s happening to this mortified individual? Obviously, he feels and looks embarrassed.

But why should being aghast over your wedding faux pas increase blood flow to your cheeks and make you unconsciously tilt your head downward? In the 1950s, the psychologist Erving Goffman proposed that conspicuous embarrassment evolved as a social signal. Turning beet red and having facial expressions that are associated among most primates with social subordination is a good indicator that you sincerely feel bad, are trying to appease your victims, and are committed to avoiding future norm violations. Numerous studies support Goffman’s idea, showing that after some gaffe, the more embarrassed the person is judged to look, the more they are also judged to seem likable, trustworthy and forgivable.

But are the people most prone to displays of embarrassment truly worthy of the trust that their reddened cheeks get them? A 2012 paper by Dacher Keltner and colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, explored this question. While being videotaped, volunteers were instructed to describe an occasion on which they had done something embarrassing—most often about passing gas in public. Later, trained observers watched the videos and rated how embarrassing the story was, how embarrassed the person looked and how appealing they seemed.

But then came the novel part of the study. In addition to recounting those embarrassing moments, subjects filled out a questionnaire about how they would divide resources between themselves and others, and played economic games built around choosing to share versus to compete for resources. And it turned out that the more dramatically subjects displayed their embarrassment, the more generous and cooperative they tended to be.

This makes sense. After all, you normally can’t will yourself to blush (unless you’re a superb actor). Instead, blushing and the other indexes of embarrassment are automatic signals that you feel bad about having violated a social norm. It is logical that people who are like that tend to particularly value behaviors that strengthen social ties.

Sociopaths, with their characteristic lack of remorse about their actions, are a fascinating counterexample. Numerous studies have shown that autonomic responses to strong emotions are blunted in sociopaths. Thus, in individuals there is a positive and statistically significant covariance between concern about violating social norms and concern with pro-sociality. In other words, anyone who isn’t embarrassed after passing gas loudly in the middle of a wedding ceremony is probably bad news.

Sadly, no one at Weiner’s news conference last week thought to bring a sensor that might quantify just how red in the face he looked. If such an instrument exists, it should be standard equipment at these confessional spectacles. It would be nice to get some scientific insight into whether the confessing sinner is actually feeling what he’s saying.

—Mr. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University. His many books include “The Trouble with Testosterone” and “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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