You Can Lessen Your Embarrassment Faster By Taking On The Role Of The Observer, According To A New Study

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The internet isn't always sunshine and roses, but one unexpected perk is that it's provided a place for people to bond over the not-too-pleasant aspects of life, with relative anonymity. Despite its vastness, the world wide web can feel remarkably small once you find a relatable sentiment posted by a stranger. Communities like reddit's r/me_irl boast over one million users plugged in to its weird, relatable posts. In fact, this phenomenon — posting as a means of dealing with emotion — has been around for a while. Remember the FML website that blew up in the mid-2000s? It's still going strong with people continuing to share their embarrassing life experiences every day.

But it turns out there might be a way you can cope beyond the internet — by assuming the role of an observer of these experiences, a person may be better-equipped to handle their own embarrassment, according to a newly published study.

Everybody gets embarrassed, but in the moment embarrassment can feel like a most dreadful, individualized experience. A fear of embarrassment likely dictates your behavior more than you would even realize. But, take comfort in the knowledge this is the case for almost everyone. The emotion has often been dismissed as something deeply ingrained in the human condition, with little able to be done about its effects except "toughening up." But some new research may just change this mentality.


In a study published in Springer's journal Motivation and Emotion, Dr. Li Jiang of Carnegie Mellon University suggests the impact of embarrassment can be lessened by reprogramming one's thinking, in a sense. In a series of three studies, Dr. Jiang examined participants' reactions to untimely flatulence — one of the most frowned upon bodily functions.

During the first study, participants were asked to respond to an advertisement depicting someone accidentally farting in a yoga class. The second study looked at the reactions of participants to an advertisement about undergoing an STD test. Finally, the third study looked at the reactions participants had to an advertisement showing a man accidentally farting in front of a love interest. During each separate study, Dr. Jiang's team aimed to test the hypothesis that adjusting one's perspective to that of the observer can reduce the embarrassment experienced.

A central finding of the studies was that those who are extremely self-conscious in public are have a higher likelihood of assuming the perspective of the embarrassed person in an uncomfortable situation. They may even feel distressed in the most extreme cases. However, levels of anxiety are reduced in this population when they are able to put themselves in the shoes of an observer in an embarrassing situation, rather than being directly involved. Dr. Jiang explains, "Our research shows that devising strategies to successfully reduce embarrassment avoidance is complicated. 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."

Among the implications of this finding is one that directly affects how people respond to certain marketing tactics. Dr. Jiang suggests marketers who employ fear of embarrassment as a sales tactic may want to look for other ways to sell their products. "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," she explains.

Marketing influence aside, this new research provides pragmatic, concrete advice on how to soften the blow of embarrassment. Rather than beating yourself up too much, take into consideration you may just be more susceptible to feeling self-conscious in social situations. Try distancing yourself from an embarrassing situation by placing yourself in the role of outside observer. It may very well help you in a moment of distress.