If a day goes by and you don't quietly relive the horror of some embarrassing thing you did in seventh grade, call a biologist, because you're probably not human.
Embarrassment is, regrettably, a basic human emotion. This week, researchers writing in the journal Motivation and Emotion offered a deceptively simple tactic for overcoming it: leave your head. [Adolescent Angst: 5 Facts About the Teenage Brain]
Across several experiments which involved showing volunteers photos of people farting in public, the researchers determined that feelings of embarrassment could be noticeably reduced when participants put themselves in the shoes of an outside observer, rather than imagining themselves a victim of an embarrassing situation. According to the researcher, this may be easier said than done.
"Past research… shows that a heavy focus on oneself can intensify negative emotions," the researchers wrote in the new study, which was published online March 27. "For example, studies have shown that people asked to imagine publicly tripping a security alarm, failing a test, arriving at a party without a gift, or being introduced as someone who bed-wets believe observers will judge them more harshly than observers actually do."
When something embarrassing happens to you, chances are you focus too much on your own perspective and forget about the empathy of others. Observers probably feel for you more than you know, and judge you less than you imagine. By stepping out of your own perspective and thinking more like an observer, the researchers hypothesized, you might feel less embarrassed.
To test this hypothesis in their new study, the researchers attempted to put volunteers in the shoes of observers during three different embarrassing situations. In the first experiment, nearly 200 volunteers looked at an ad for Beano — a gas-relief supplement — which depicted a woman farting in a yoga class mid-downward-dog. In another experiment, a different group of participants looked at a similar ad of a person flatulating in front of his crush at a party, and in a third experiment yet another group of participants looked at an ad requesting volunteers to discuss STD treatments with a group of unfamiliar doctors.
After viewing each ad, the volunteers were given a survey to gauge their embarrassment. (Sample question: "When you read the ad, to what extent did you imagine yourself being the actor who farted in the scene?")
Individuals who scored higher for self-consciousness on a personality test reported greater feelings of distress and embarrassment from the ads. (They were also more likely to want to buy the products depicted.) However, in each study one subset of volunteers was encouraged to first take the perspective of an outside observer before answering the survey. When looking at the STD ad, for example, these participants were asked how they would react if they were the doctor, rather than the patient divulging their medical history.
True to the researchers' hypothesis, participants who put themselves in an observer's point of view were significantly less likely to express strong feelings of embarrassment in any of the experiments.
Thinking this way in the midst of a distressing moment is counter to how a lot of us intuitively behave, the researchers said, and might take diligent mental training for highly self-conscious folks to achieve. If you fit into that category, just remember: science says you can overcome your embarrassment… one fart at a time.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.