Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 42, Issue 5, pp 748–762 | Cite as

Countering embarrassment-avoidance by taking an observer's perspective

  • Li JiangEmail author
  • Aimee Drolet
  • Carol A. Scott
Original Paper


The fear of embarrassment can have harmful effects in many important consumer domains (e.g. health and financial), especially for high public self-consciousness (PUBSC) consumers. This research examines how adopting the perspective of an observer interacts with trait PUBSC to influence embarrassment-avoidance. Study 1 demonstrates that individuals high in PUBSC (vs. not) are more likely to take an actor’s perspective and to feel personal distress when viewing an ad with an embarrassment appeal. Studies 2–3 show that seeing oneself as an observer is a helpful strategy for combatting embarrassment-avoidance for high PUBSC individuals. This process is effortful and requires cognitive resources. Together, Studies 1–3 demonstrate the power of our theory to explain, predict, and modify embarrassment-avoidance among individuals most likely to anticipate and avoid embarrassment.


Embarrassment-avoidance Empathy Perspective-taking Personal distress Public self-consciousness 



The authors would like to thank Loraine Lau-Gesk for contributions to an earlier version of this research.


  1. Aiken, L. S., West, S. G., & Reno, R. R. (1991). Multiple regression: Testing and interpreting interactions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  2. Ayduk, Ö, & Kross, E. (2008). Enhancing the pace of recovery: Self-distanced analysis of negative experiences reduces blood pressure reactivity. Psychological Science, 19(3), 229–231.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Bargh, J. A. (1994). The four horsemen of automaticity: Awareness, efficiency, intention, and control in social cognition. In R. S. Wyer Jr. & T. K. Srull (Ed.), Handbook of social cognition (2nd edn., pp. 1–40). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  4. Bell, J. (2009). Why embarrassment inhibits the acquisition and use of condoms: A qualitative approach to understanding risky sexual behaviour. Journal of Adolescence, 32(2), 379–391.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Brackett, K. P. (2004). College students’ condom purchase strategies. The Social Science Journal, 41(3), 459–464.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.Google Scholar
  7. Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1), 113–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Davis, M. H., Conklin, L., Smith, A., & Luce, C. (1996). Effect of perspective taking on the cognitive representation of persons: A merging of self and other. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(4), 713.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Drolet, A., & Luce, M. F. (2004). The rationalizing effects of cognitive load on emotion-based trade-off avoidance. Journal of Consumer Research, 31(1), 63–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Drolet, A., Luce, M. F., & Simonson, I. (2009). When does choice reveal preference? Moderators of heuristic versus goal-based choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(1), 137–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Edelmann, R. J. (1985). Individual differences in embarrassment: Self-consciousness, self-monitoring and embarrassibility. Personality and Individual Differences, 6(2), 223–230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Edelmann, R. J. (1987). The psychology of embarrassment. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  13. Edelmann, R. J., & McCusker, G. (1986). Introversion, neuroticism, empathy and embarrassibility. Personality and Individual Differences, 7(2), 133–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Epley, N. (2014). Mindwise: Why we misunderstand what others think, believe, feel, and want. New York: Vintage.Google Scholar
  15. Epley, N., Savitsky, K., & Gilovich, T. (2002). Empathy neglect: Reconciling the spotlight effect and the correspondence bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 300.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Evans, J. S. B. (2008). Dual-processing accounts of reasoning, judgment, and social cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 255–278.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Fenigstein, A. (1984). Self-consciousness and the overperception of self as a target. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(4), 860.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fenigstein, A., Scheier, M. F., & Buss, A. H. (1975). Public and private self-consciousness: Assessment and theory. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 43(4), 522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Foss, R. D., & Crenshaw, N. C. (1978). Risk of embarrassment and helping. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 6(2), 243–245.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Froming, W. J., Corley, E. B., & Rinker, L. (1990). The influence of public self-consciousness and the audience’s characteristics on withdrawal from embarrassing situations. Journal of Personality, 58(4), 603–622.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social judgment: An egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one’s own actions and appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 211.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Helweg-Larsen, M., & Collins, B. E. (1994). The UCLA multidimensional condom attitudes scale: Documenting the complex determinants of condom use in college students. Health Psychology, 13(3), 224.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Keltner, D., & Buswell, B. N. (1997). Embarrassment: Its distinct form and appeasement functions. Psychological Bulletin, 122(3), 250.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Kross, E. (2009). When the self becomes other. Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 1167(1), 35–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kross, E., & Ayduk, O. (2008). Facilitating adaptive emotional analysis: Distinguishing distanced-analysis of depressive experiences from immersed-analysis and distraction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 924–938.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Kross, E., Ayduk, O., & Mischel, W. (2005). When asking “why” does not hurt distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions. Psychological Science, 16(9), 709–715.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Kruger, J., & Gilovich, T. (1999). “Naive cynicism” in everyday theories of responsibility assessment: On biased assumptions of bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(5), 743.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lau-Gesk, L., & Drolet, A. (2008). The publicly self-consciousness consumer: Prepared to be embarrassed. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 18(2), 127–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Layton, J. (2016). The odd empathy of vicarious embarrassment. Accessed 23 Feb 2016.
  30. Miller, L. C., & Cox, C. L. (1982). For appearances’ sake: Public self-consciousness and makeup use. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 8(4), 748–751.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Miller, R. S. (1987). Empathic embarrassment: Situational and personal determinants of reactions to the embarrassment of another. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1061–1069.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Miller, R. S. (2007). Is embarrassment a blessing or a curse. In: J. L. Tracy, R. W. Robins, & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research (pp. 245–262).Google Scholar
  33. Miller, R. S., & Leary, M. R. (1992). Social sources and interactive functions of emotion: The case of embarrassment. In M. S. Clark (Ed.), Review of personality and social psychology, Vol. 14. Emotion and social behavior (pp. 202–221). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.Google Scholar
  34. Miller, R. S., & Tangney, J. P. (1994). Differentiating embarrassment and shame. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 13(3), 273–287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Modigliani, A. (1968). Embarrassment and embarrassability. Sociometry, 31, 313–326.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Modigliani, A. (1971). Embarrassment, facework, and eye contact: Testing a theory of embarrassment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(1), 15–24.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Moore, S. G., Dahl, D. W., Gorn, G. J., & Weinberg, C. B. (2006). Coping with condom embarrassment. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 11(1), 70–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Nickerson, R. S. (1999). How we know—and sometimes misjudge—what others know: Imputing one’s own knowledge to others. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 737.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1991). Responses to depression and their effects on the duration of depressive episodes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100(4), 569.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Parrott, W. G., & Smith, S. F. (1991). Embarrassment: Actual vs. typical cases, classical vs. prototypical representations. Cognition & Emotion, 5(5–6), 467–488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Preacher, K. J., & Hayes, A. F. (2008). Asymptotic and resampling strategies for assessing and comparing indirect effects in multiple mediator models. Behavior Research Methods, 40(3), 879–891.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Savitsky, K., Epley, N., & Gilovich, T. (2001). Do others judge us as harshly as we think? Overestimating the impact of our failures, shortcomings, and mishaps. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 44.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Schlenker, B. R. (1980). Impression management. Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  44. Singelis, T. M., & Sharkey, W. F. (1995). Culture, self-construal, and embarrassability. Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology, 26(6), 622–644.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Sudman, S., Bradburn, N. M., & Schwarz, N. (1996). Thinking about answers: The application of cognitive processes to survey methodology. New York: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  46. Von Gemmingen, M. J., Sullivan, B. F., & Pomerantz, A. M. (2003). Investigating the relationships between boredom proneness, paranoia, and self-consciousness. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(6), 907–919.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Ward, A., & Mann, T. (2000). Don’t mind if I do: Disinhibited eating under cognitive load. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 753.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(6), 1063.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Zhao, X., Lynch, J. G., & Chen, Q. (2010). Reconsidering Baron and Kenny: Myths and truths about mediation analysis. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(2), 197–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Carnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA
  2. 2.UCLA Anderson School of ManagementLos AngelesUSA

Personalised recommendations