Mental training may be the key to overcoming embarrassment and helping people avoid humiliation or distress, a new study suggests.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have found that when people train their mind to be an observer, rather than an active participant, in an embarrassing situation, it is possible to overcome feelings of self-consciousness.
The study is published in Springer’s journal Motivation and Emotion.
Led by Li Jiang, post-doctoral affiliate at CMU and lead author of the study, the research team conducted multiple studies involving embarrassing advertisements to test how people react differently to embarrassment.
The team showed different advertisements to three groups of participants, who came from UCLA and Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing internet marketplace, and evaluated their responses.
In the first study, the researchers asked participants to respond to an advertisement that showed someone accidentally farting in a yoga class.
In the second study, they showed participants an advertisement about getting tested for sexual transmitted diseases.
In the last study, the participants were shown an advertisement of a man accidentally farting in front of his love interest.
“Importantly, we found that people respond to embarrassing situations differently depending on their individual differences in public self-consciousness,” said Jiang.
The researchers found that people who are extremely self-conscious are more likely to take an “actor’s perspective,” or draw themselves into the embarrassing situation and focus on it too much. But the levels of self-consciousness drop when they are able to shift their focus and take an observer’s perspective.
“For people who get embarrassed easily, observing from an observer’s perspective helped them calm down and act more charitably toward themselves,” said Jiang. “It’s all a matter of shifting your point of view.”
Jiang believes this research has important implications for marketers, as advertisements often use embarrassing situations to draw customers in.
“If you want to be sure that customers are not embarrassed to purchase your product, or you want to be sure that customers are not afraid to ask questions, then you clearly want them to think about the situation taking the observer’s point of view,” said Jiang. “This is the novel part about the paper.”
Jiang also described how marketers in the past have been successful at increasing embarrassment-avoidance behavior.
This technique makes consumers feel that unless they buy the product, they are going to be judged. A perfect example of this is the typical laundry detergent ad showing embarrassing stains on dirty clothes and their successful removal with the detergent.
Because this is a common strategy, Jiang encourages consumers to be aware of the motivating factor when buying a product.
“For consumers, it is useful to be aware of how you judge people and use that to guide your assumption of judgment from others,” she said. “Then you can truly decide which behavior you – as opposed to others – want you to do. Buy the laundry detergent if you truly want to have clean clothes – not because others will think badly of you because you are dirty.”
The researchers believe that being able to overcome embarrassment is an effective tool to help both ourselves and others in social situations.