The Wall Street Journal:
Watching the writhing of a celebrity caught doing something bad has become an American pastime. Regardless of the transgression, and whether it concerns a politician, athlete, actor or religious leader, there is great consistency to the spectacle of a public figure trying to seem contrite.
But why should being aghast over your wedding faux pas increase blood flow to your cheeks and make you unconsciously tilt your head downward? In the 1950s, the psychologist Erving Goffman proposed that conspicuous embarrassment evolved as a social signal. Turning beet red and having facial expressions that are associated among most primates with social subordination is a good indicator that you sincerely feel bad, are trying to appease your victims, and are committed to avoiding future norm violations. Numerous studies support Goffman’s idea, showing that after some gaffe, the more embarrassed the person is judged to look, the more they are also judged to seem likable, trustworthy and forgivable.
But are the people most prone to displays of embarrassment truly worthy of the trust that their reddened cheeks get them? A 2012 paper by Dacher Keltner and colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, explored this question. While being videotaped, volunteers were instructed to describe an occasion on which they had done something embarrassing—most often about passing gas in public. Later, trained observers watched the videos and rated how embarrassing the story was, how embarrassed the person looked and how appealing they seemed.
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