Oct. 5, 2011 at 12:54 PM ET
Have you ever fallen asleep in a public place, started snoring loudly until it woke you up, then noticed others staring at you? Or accidentally knocked over your water glass in a crowded restaurant and sent it crashing to the floor?
Although these flubs may leave you red-faced, avoiding eye contact, or laughing nervously, a new study suggests that embarrassment can be a good thing.
The upside of being easily flustered is that people are likely to perceive you as a kind and caring person -- someone that others are likely to trust and want to be friends with, says study lead author Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
That's great news the next time you feel ashamed because you just asked a woman with a protruding belly when her baby is due -- except she's not pregnant, or you let out a loud belch at a staff meeting. Just keep in mind that previous research has found that embarrassment serves as a form of social apology and a fence-mending gesture.
This new research, published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, looked at whether embarrassment might reveal a person's prosocial tendencies, meaning the ability to be generous, trustworthy, giving, and caring toward other people.
In one experiment, 57 college students were videotaped recalling an extremely embarrassing moment. Most described social gaffes like passing gas or tripping over something. Students also completed two tests measuring their generosity and cooperativeness, and raters evaluated their videos to determine how embarrassing their stories were and how humiliated the participants felt.
In this experiment and four others, researchers found that observers viewed embarrassment as a signal of kind and generous behavior. Feeling ashamed indicated that you care about others and have a desire not to hurt them, suggests Feinberg. "Observers can feel safe that an embarrassed individual will be less likely to take advantage of them or be unfaithful," he explains.
So what does it say about someone who barely reacts to having egg on your face? An observer may perceive a less embarrassable individual as a person who you may not want to trust or who may be more selfish, Feinberg says.
Although expressing embarrassment may make you feel momentarily uncomfortable, Feinberg points out it helps people get information about someone's character and reliability, and may be one way we can signal to others that we can be relied upon.
The results do not apply to feeling shame or to those with social anxiety, neither of which were studied.
Since it will only make you seem more likeable, want to share your most embarrassing moment ever? Leave your story in the comments, and we may feature you in an upcoming post.