New research explains ‘Social Embarrassment'

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This is part 2 of our mini-series on Morals & Guilt. Click here for Part 1. In Part 2 I will discuss ‘social embarrassment’. I mentioned in Part 1 that when I was a teenager I was very religious. In fact I was a religious fanatic – this all fed into my ‘following rules’ personality and my OCD. At age 17 I had become convinced that anyone who did not become a Christian would go to hell for eternity. Therefore I felt that I had a duty before God to tell everyone about Christianity. I remember on one occasion sitting in my 6th form common room with around 50 sixth formers sitting around me. I preached the Christian message with everyone listening on. Most people would just be too embarrassed to preach to 50 peers at school. For some reason I have always felt that I should not allow embarrassment to hinder me from doing anything.
Start Quote No matter how embarrassed I am, I have always felt that I have a duty to suppress that embarrassment. Consequently, my social skills have often been poor, since I think that fear of embarrassment helps us to act in a socially appropriate manner. End Quote

Social confidence was a mask for deep feelings of inadequacy

The truth is I am very sensitive to other people’s opinions about me. I have written a whole article on this subject (click here to read). I now try to face my feelings of embarrassment instead of suppressing them. As soon as I started to face my true feelings, I developed a tick. This ‘twitch’ occurs every time I remember something I have done concerning which I am very embarrassed. However, I never had this 'tick' before I started allowing myself to face my feelings of embarrassment. One might say that the this twitch a problem. However, when I refused to face my feelings of embarassment, I ended up acting in increasingly socially inappropriate ways to cover up my feelings. I actually feel that the twitch is a better response than the negative responses I had when I refused to face my true feelings. I believe that there are individual differences regarding how embarrassed we get when we do something we deem to be ‘socially inappropriate’. Some get more embarrassed than others. But why should we care? And why is being socially appropriate important?

Social embarrassment has ancient tribal origins

In this series we have been drawing on Boehm’s extremely important book Moral Origins (click here for full review). Here are some of Boehm’s thoughts concerning social appropriateness:
  1. Boehm references Robin Dunbar, who believes that human societies use ‘moralistic gossiping’ in order to develop, and foster the moral ideals of the group. Research shows that the majority of our conversation is dedicated to what Dunbar terms ‘gossiping’: talking about other people’s relationships and behaviour. Much of our television is also dominated by similar themes: talk shows and soap operas are noteworthy examples of ‘gossip’ TV.
  2. Boehm says that human societies universally condemn, ‘murder, undue use of authority, cheating that harms group cooperation, major lying, theft, and socially disruptive sexual behavior.’
  3. If individuals within tribal communities threaten the lives of others and refuse to stop acting in ways that seriously threaten to undermine the cohesion of the group, then serious action is taken. In the worst cases, the tribal group may reach a consensus and the death penalty is applied. This is a widespread practise today. However, there are now many movements that oppose such action. But Boehm proposes that prior to these movements, over the last 45,000 years, this practise would have probably been the norm amongst our tribal ancestors. When contemplating this shocking idea, we should perhaps remember that our tribal ancestors did not have jail as an option for containing deviants.

‘Social Embarrassment’ has evolved to help us obey moral codes

In short, Boehm proposes that human morals are built within societies that constantly promote and foster moral codes through ‘gossiping’. Embarrassment would have developed within this context as an adaptive trait pushing individuals to better adhere to the moral code of the group. Those who strive to conform are better accepted and supported in the tribal setting. His second proposal may be disturbing for many modern thinkers. As outlined above, Boehm proposes that the genes of severely amoral individuals would have been stamped out. How would this happen? In our ancestral tribal setting, the death penalty would have been administered to severe deviants who threatened to undermine the stability of the group. But I think this is understandable given the context. If you don't get enough food because someone is not sharing, then this could be the difference between life and death in times where food is scarce. So according to Boehm, our sense of shame concerning acting in ways that are ‘socially inappropriate’, forms the central fabric of human societies. It is the very lifeblood that has ensured that stability and co-operation has been maintained in human societies for at least the last 50,000 years. What do you think? I would be interested to hear your thoughts: are you, like me very sensitive to other people’s opinions about you? And secondly, do you try to suppress feelings of embarrassment? And do you think it is good or bad to suppress these feelings? Quiz: Try our Social Appropriateness quiz and find out how socially appropriate you are - CLICK HERE

Part 3 - Can you have too much empathy?

In Part 3 of our Morals & Guilt series we will look at how empathy contribute to moral beliefs & behaviour. Click here for Part 3. Photo: Gavin Schaefer


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