A New Psychology Study May Explain Why We Get Embarrassed

Using Psychology to Understand Who Gets Embarrassed?
We like to think of everyone experiencing embarrassment at one point or another and tend to accept it as a natural part of life. The wiser among us may say becoming embarrassed indicates obtaining more knowledge, albeit somewhat painfully, of how society works. But what if you never became embarrassed, or somehow didn’t feel the same level of embarrassment as others? A new psychology study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco and the University of California, Berkeley measured the effects singing “My Girl” by The Temptations had on a portion of the brain. The results help explain why some of us become easily embarrassed while still others seem incapable of recognizing the appropriate times to feel ashamed.

The Embarrassment Study
In an embarrassment study presented to the American Academy of Neurology in April, U.C.S.F. Postdoctoral fellow Virginia Sturm explained the psychology of becoming embarrassed. The study was composed of 79 embarrassment study participants, of which many had a neurogenetive disease called frontotemporal dementia, a condition that compels those suffering to behave in ways healthy people would sometimes call embarrassing. Independent of one another, the embarrassment study participants sang along to The Temptations’ “My Girl.” However, the psychology study participants felt the most embarrassment when they were forced to watch themselves singing “My Girl” on videotape, without the musical accompaniment. Or did they?

Embarrassment Study Findings: Healthy Embarrassment Study Participants
Of the healthy embarrassment study participants, watching a videotape of themselves singing “My Girl” without musical accompaniment to hide any of their singing caused predictable levels of embarrassment. All embarrassment study participants were measured for heart rate, blood pressure, levels of sweating, breathing changes, along with videotaped facial expression response. The healthy embarrassment study participants experienced elevated heart rate, blood pressure, increased sweating, irregular breathing, as well as markedly embarrassed facial response.

Embarrassment Study Findings: Embarrassment Study Participants with Neurogenerative Diseases
However, the embarrassment study participants with neurodegenerative diseases did not experience such elevated physiological changes while watching themselves on videotape. Their heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of sweat did not increase as with the other embarrassment study participants, nor did their breathing match the irregular changes of their healthier counterparts. These findings were later supported by further psychology research; MRI results found a correlation between the degree to which the responsible area in the brain was damaged and the degree to which embarrassment study participants experienced the sensation of embarrassment.

What This Embarrassment Study Does Not Suggest
Though embarrassment is an emotion, those with neurodegenerative diseases are not as likely to experience great disparities in reactions to simple stimuli as healthy individuals. Therefore, it is wrong to deduce those with diseases effecting associated areas have a psychology which does not support experiencing emotion. After the primary embarrassment study was completed, embarrassment study participants were subjected to a final psychology test. This psychology test was far more simple; embarrassment study participants were simply sat in a quiet room until a gunshot was abruptly fired. Because all of the embarrassment study participants jumped at the noise, the simple psychology test supported that individuals with a disease effecting the pregenual anterior cortex still do experience emotions, such as fear. It is only the complex emotions such as embarrassment which are effected by neurodegeneration in the associated areas.

Bardi, Jason. “UCSF Team Describes Neurological Basis for Embarrassment.”. University of California, San Francisco. UCSF, 15 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 Oct. 2011. http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2011/04/9715/ucsf-team-describes-neurological-basis-embarrassment.

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