Study seeks to uncover the science of embarrassment

No matter how often we are told not to feel embarrassed, right on cue, it seems, the first flush of blood starts to fill the cheeks and that gnawing sense of insecurity sweeps over us.

But while scientists have long known the physical causes of blushing, researchers are set to investigate the psychological roots of embarrassment.

A three-year study costing £125,000, at St Andrews University and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will seek to explain why certain group situations can leave our cheeks burning.

Dr Anja Eller, who will lead the study, said embarrassment remains one of the final unexamined areas of negative emotions, as anxiety, shame and guilt have all been explained. Experts will monitor participants putting themselves in embarrassing situations in front of different groups. "The emotion of embarrassment is only felt in the presence of and because of an audience, even if that audience is imagined," said Dr Eller. "The nature of the audience has only scarcely been investigated so far, but it is clearly vital. Social identity theory holds that, when people act as group members, their world view changes."

Researchers will also seek to understand why we feel embarrassed on behalf of others, and while some revel in others' discomfiture. "If you trip over in the street you feel very embarrassed, of course," said Dr Eller. "People in your own group who witness this ... feel empathic embarrassment and try to alleviate the situation and make you feel better. But members of another group feel Schadenfreude."

It is claimed the project might explain why some people do not intervene in emergencies, stop fights or tell people to stop behaving badly.

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