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Things that Yoram knows: an embarrassing column

The column about the connection between evolution and emotions Brought my father to ask, "Why are we embarrassed?"

embarrassment. Illustration: shutterstock
embarrassment. Illustration: shutterstock

Humans have basic, universal emotions that have distinct facial expression. These emotions such as fear, joy, sadness and disgust serve the basic survival needs: protection from dangers, infections and motivation for actions that promote survival and culture. Feelings of self-awareness such as shame, guilt, embarrassment or pride are more difficult to understand. A group of emotions that requires empathic ability to experience: a person is ashamed or embarrassed only if he is able to imagine how he is perceived by other people.

Somehow our relatives in the animal kingdom manage without feeling embarrassed or ashamed and it is not clear how shyness might help any creature to spread its genes. And yet, embarrassment not only exists in humans, but is a powerful emotion: when we showed people a video in which they try their hand at singing in front of an audience, there were the clear signs of mental stress: an increase in heart rate, temperature, and the electrical conductivity of the skin more extreme than when watching the murder scene in the shower in "Psycho" Hitchcock's.

Embarrassingly, it is among the least understood of the range of human emotions. In fact, the very status of embarrassment as an emotion in itself and distinct from its fellows was controversial. Embarrassment is close to shame, both are negative emotions that arise when our self-esteem or social esteem is damaged. According to the old attribution theory in psychology, shame and guilt arise as a response to an event that does not correspond to a person's self-esteem, for example a failure in an exam for someone for whom academic success is important. Guilt will arise if the reason for failure is a factor that can be controlled (I failed the exam because I went to hang out instead of preparing) and shame will arise when the person perceives the reason for failure as inherent in him (I failed the exam because I'm not smart enough). This psychological theory sees these feelings as the result of a mismatch between the person's self-concept and his actual actions or achievements. Shame damages a person's self-esteem and is therefore a motivating force: the feeling of diminishing the "I" provokes a response of restoration or at least prevention of further damage. In an experiment in which subjects were asked to choose between an ability test and a more relaxed task, it became clear that those who first evoked the feeling of shame (by bringing up memories of shameful past events) were eager to compete compared to those who brought up casual memories. But attribution theory does not deal with the social dimension of shame and embarrassment or with our question: how did these feelings grow in man.

The difference between shame and embarrassment is that shame is usually caused by not meeting the expectations of close people (failing a test or breaching a friend's trust) or our own and embarrassment is caused by a violation of general norms of behavior and is always social (no sane person would feel embarrassed due to a puff that was released when he was alone ) Accordingly, we will be more ashamed in front of close people and more embarrassed in front of strangers.

Shame is an important tool in the hands of those whose job it is to make us follow the path, and as a means of moral guidance it has a dubious reputation: those who abide by the rules out of fear of harming their honor are considered to have less morality than those who are motivated by guilt, that is, they accept principles and values ​​regardless of the opinion of the environment. Preferring guilt over shame is a new idea, the ancients saw shame as the gateway to morality "Every person who is ashamed is not soon a sinner and he who has no shame knowing that his ancestors did not stand on Mount Sinai" (Vow Tract).

Psychologist Desher Keltner gave embarrassment recognition as part of the human emotional repertoire. It turns out that there are characteristic facial expressions and body gestures that always appear and are identified regardless of culture with embarrassment. About half a second after we were "caught", that is, when it became clear to us that "everyone" heard the loud graps, the reaction of embarrassment begins. It includes looking down and then to the sides, a special "smile" that is not similar toThe friendly laughing girl Rather, it involves only one muscle (the zygomaticus) that raises the corners of the mouth upwards while the rest of the lower half of the face is frozen and contracted. Then the head is bent down and with it the shoulders are dropped, at this stage there is often a touch of the hand in the face. Already two-year-old children perform the complete sequence of actions when they are required, for example, to appear in front of strangers. Not only are embarrassment gestures universal, but so is their interpretation: people from different cultures have correctly identified embarrassment in distant peoples. Culture certainly influences the situations that will trigger the embarrassment, but not the way it is expressed. The blush, by the way, is just a hitchhiker: the face turns red about 15 to 20 seconds from the start of the event, while the typical display of embarrassment lasts only about 5 seconds. Embarrassment gestures are interpreted by the environment as the embarrassment's recognition of the rules it violated and as an expression of a desire to return to conforming behavior as quickly as possible and accordingly the reaction will be forgiving and accepting. In an experiment that measured the magnitude of the embarrassment gesture, it became clear that it was a reliable signal: those who broadcast embarrassment showed more consideration and generosity towards their teammates compared to those who ignored an embarrassing event, and people were more inclined to trust those who expressed embarrassment. Another study revealed that young people prone to anti-social behaviors such as violence and vandalism express less embarrassment than their normative peers.

In contrast to the fear or surprise shared by us and the animals, the shame and embarrassment are ours alone, animals are neither ashamed nor embarrassed. Adam and Eve began to be ashamed only after tasting the "fruit of the tree of knowledge" because the ability to be ashamed is related to the ability to understand how our actions are judged by an outside observer. But still it is unlikely that such fundamental emotions arose from somewhere and can be traced back to their ancient origin. The chain of gestures accompanying human embarrassment is reminiscent of the surrender or reconciliation rituals performed by junior members of a pack of monkeys or wolves towards their superiors. These rituals in the animal kingdom also include looking away, shrinking and bowing the head while exposing the neck and self-grooming (reminiscent of caressing the face with the hand of the embarrassed): the animal tries its best to appear small, non-threatening and even "childish". Both in our shame and in the surrender demonstrations of those who walk on all fours, the hormone cortisol is secreted and proteins from the cytokine family are used as signal carriers between the cells of the nervous system and the immune system.

With these animals, a clear hierarchy prevails and those who try to deviate from their place in the social order are expected to receive a severe reaction to the point of being removed from the herd. Ostracism is an existential danger: the coyote often acts conciliatory towards the dominant male in his pack in rituals reminiscent of a domestic dog's flattery to its owner. Such behavior seems logical when it turns out that a lone wolf's chances of surviving outside the pack are very small. Even in human society, shame is related to differences in status and is often used as a means of control: from the teacher in the classroom, through the MCA in the trainees to the boss.

But even if our ancestors had an ancestral emotion from which both animal submission and embarrassment developed, then these are different emotions: only man is embarrassed in front of someone who is equal to him in his status (he will not poke his nose at a traffic light if he thinks the driver next to him notices this) perhaps because human society is more complex and the horizontal cooperation between Peers are just as important as the vertical hierarchical order.

In order to survive our ancestors had to remain part of a group and in order to produce descendants they had to maintain their status within it. According to evolutionary psychology, the development of language has made the preservation of social reputation a more complicated task because gossip allows the spread of information about breaking rules to the whole group or tribe. A defense mechanism against breaking group norms was required and shame played this vital role. Natural selection has fostered, according to this approach, conformity in man in a similar way to speed in the cheetah or height in the giraffe. The display of embarrassment transmits an acceptance of the norms and thus repairs the damage caused by their violation. Rules of behavior in a group exist in every social creature, but only humans apply the rules: even the most submissive monkey will not hesitate to steal food if no alpha male is around. The peak feeling of shame and embarrassment is experienced in adolescence, that is, at the stage when belonging to a group of equals and establishing status within it becomes the main challenge. Unlike our relatives, we are sensitive not only to anger from the environment but also to feelings of disgust towards ourselves. Disgust is an emotion shared by humans and animals But only homo sapiens expanded its boundaries into the social sphere and at the same time created a strong desire not to arouse disgust and only we are able to feel embarrassment or shame from another person's behavior.

People with a low tendency to feel embarrassed also tend to be less considerate of other humans and more violent. Embarrassment, my father, is an unpleasant emotion, but it was probably much less pleasant to live in a shameless and embarrassed society.  

Thanks to Dr. M. Zeelenberg for his help

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