On differentiating embarrassment from shame

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Abstract

Four experiments were conducted to demonstrate that embarrassment and shame are distinct emotions that result from violations of different types of internalized standards. Embarrassment results from violating one's particular persona; shame results from violating a shared, objective ideal. Subjects vividly imagined themselves in situations and indicated their emotional reactions. In Experiment I, we demonstrate that people differentiate between embarrassment and shame systematically (F(1,27) = 74.4, p < 0.001). In Experiments 2 and 3, we demonstrate that embarrassment results from violating a persona (n = 34, p < 0.001; n = 23, p < 0.001), and shame results from violating an objective ideal (n = 34, p < 0.001; n = 23, p < 0.001). In Experiment 4, we demonstrate that it is the type of standard that is violated (n = 30, p < 0.001), not whether or not the violation was intentional, that determines whether one experiences embarrassment or shame. We argue that both shame and embarrassment play an important role in maintaining personal identity.

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