What Is Embarrassment, Really? Why Some People Blush More Than Others, And What It Says About Them

There's a reason teen comedies are rife with situations that make us all want to cringe. Social faux pas, period accidents: there is essentially nothing that will not make a self-conscious teenager convulse in embarrassment and crave an Invisibility Cloak. Adolescents are, psychologically, horribly easy to embarrass, because they're hyper-aware of their own image in the eyes of others — but even later in life, going painfully red is still a regular thing for most of us. But what is embarrassment for, really? And what kind of twisted after-school special is it trying to teach us?

I learned to cope with embarrassment early, largely because I have the most accidentally embarrassing mother on earth. (She once set her own fur hat alight in a Michelin-starred restaurant.) It is basically impossible to make me feel embarrassment for myself — if I fall over in the street, I'll just start laughing hysterically. But it turns out that this breezy attitude may be making passers-by believe that I am less a charming, happy-go-lucky sort ... and more a possible psychopath. Yes, really.

Because embarrassment, despite giving us nightmares for years after eighth grade, turns out to have a strong neurological and social function, and life without it would be both peculiar for you and thoroughly confusing to anybody you tried to befriend. Embarrassment is how you show your knowledge of social cues, and also how you demonstrate empathy and trust. Yes, it still blows, but knowing the purpose behind it may help you accept your faux pas with a little more grace.

What's Happening In Your Brain When You're Embarrassed?

Embarrassment differs from other emotions in a crucial respect: it's about social groups. Embarrassment is reactive; it's a painful reaction to being seen in a certain way (whether real or imagined) by the people around you. But a 2013 study has isolated the particular part of the brain that activates when you, say, accidentally send a flirty text to a stuffy coworker – and it tells us a lot about what embarrassment might actually be for.

The study was actually pretty cruel — it involved people watching themselves singing "My Girl" while having their brains monitored — but it located the "embarrassment" bit of the brain. It's the right pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (paCC). (In case you were looking for a new name for your next dog.)

This is interesting because the paCC isn't just there to house your serious horror at whatever happened last night. It's one of our key emotional learning centers; it houses a lot of emotional memories, including ones about pain. It's been suggested that this is the bit of the brain where love turns into happiness and pain, physical or mental, turns into suffering. Embarrassment is being handled by our most important emotional switchboard.

So we can't just switch the paCC off. (Sorry.) But it turns out that embarrassment might not just be horrible for no reason: it might be helping us, whether we like it or not.

Is There A Purpose To Embarrassment?

It turns out that the actual feeling of embarrassment is only part of its social value. Looking embarrassed — red face, nervous smile, diving behind the nearest large object — is important too.

Why? Because even though it causes us pain, evolutionary theorists now argue that embarrassment helps to regulate social groups. You get embarrassed when you do something socially unacceptable or bizarre; your embarrassment shows to friends and family that it wasn't intended, and that you do actually know the rules of the gathering. So getting a violent attack of the cringes when you accidentally fart in church isn't actually a bad thing — it proves to disapproving onlookers that you know you f'd up.

The pain is also meant to be regulating: If you break your leg, you're likely not going to try doing parkour on your local jungle gym again. Similarly, the pain of embarrassment may be meant to discourage you from repeating whatever socially unacceptable thing caused it. Remember that pain? Good. Now refrain from unconsciously singing along to Lion King songs in the college library next time.

This explains why certain things stop embarrassing us as we age. If the society around you doesn't find that stuff horrifying any more — or if you point-blank don't care what they think — there's no reason for your brain to flip that switch and regulate the behavior.

Are People Who Get Embarrassed More Easily Fundamentally Different?

People who get embarrassed more easily are certainly viewed differently: Experiments have shown that people who display their embarrassment are rated as more trustworthy and cooperative than people who don't. (For example, people in study groups gave more raffle tickets to subjects who showed visible embarrassment, and rated them less selfish and more trustworthy.)

But why? Well, we trust empathetic people who appear to care about us and our feelings and opinions. And embarrassed people are more likely to want to make a social situation as smooth as possible, including giving away more than they would otherwise.

Interestingly, the fact that we trust easily-embarrassed people more is pretty accurate — it also seems that those are the best people. In the same studies, visibly embarrassed people actually were more generous and less self-interested.

Turns out embarrassment is actually a pretty good personality trait to trust. Psychopaths, for example, feel absolutely no embarrassment. It's part of their psychology — and that's part of what makes them so unnerving if you spend a lot of social time with them. Their lack of self-consciousness and empathy mean that they're literally walled off from the emotion.

So next time you tell your boss you "can't wait to see you sexybum xxxxox," relax; your apologetic follow-up email will just make you look like a caring, generous soul. And you are never going to do that again. And you're not a psychopath.

Images: Getty, Giphy