Countering embarrassment-avoidance by taking an observer's perspective

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A second judgment bias, the ‘spotlight’ effect, refers to actors’ tendency to overestimate the degree to which observers notice their embarrassing blunders; see research by Epley and colleagues. We do not investigate the spotlight effect here. Instead, we focus on the segment of consumers who chronically feel as though they are under observation (i.e., in the spotlight).

  2. 2.

    We use the LPUBSC designation as a shortcut for saying low to medium PUBSC consumers—or not high PUBSC—consumers. LPUBSC is not the focus of the paper because they do not have embarrassment avoidance behavior in the first place.

  3. 3.

    A reduction in embarrassment-avoidance might also be achieved by reducing the degree to which individuals feel that others will notice their behavior, i.e., that they are in the ‘spotlight’ (Gilovich et al. 2000). In this paper, however, we focus only on empathy-neglect.

  4. 4.

    We are aware of the literature on vicarious (i.e. empathetic) embarrassment, which reveals that observers of an actor committing a social blunder often experience that actor’s emotional distress (Edelmann and McCusker 1986; Miller 1987). We focus on somewhat different aspects of embarrassing situations. Specifically, whereas vicarious embarrassment focuses on what an observer may feel while witnessing an actor commit a social blunder, we focus on how the observer will evaluate the actor. In brief, we believe that our work represents a novel extension of the vicarious embarrassment literature.

  5. 5.

    Unawareness, unintentionality, uncontrollability, and high efficiency are four underlying qualities of automaticity (see Bargh 1994). Evidence of one of these qualities is said to indicate automaticity.

  6. 6.

    The effect of including income as a covariate did not change the significant level of the two-way interaction: (F(1, 102) = 3.80, p < .05), or main effect (ps > 0.05).

  7. 7.

    Again, we use the LPUBSC designation as a shortcut for saying low to medium PUBSC consumers—or not high PUBSC—consumers.

  8. 8.

    The results change slightly if income is not included as a covariate (intentions: MHPUBSC,observer’s perspective = 4.91 vs. MHPUBSC,control = 3.39; t(102) = 1.75, p = .08; intentions: MLPUBSC,observer’s perspective = 4.76 vs. MLPUBSC,control = 6.08; t(102) = 1.64, p = .11).

  9. 9.

    Again, we use the LPUBSC designation as a shortcut for saying low to medium PUBSC consumers—or not high PUBSC—consumers.

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Acknowledgements

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

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Correspondence to Li Jiang.

Methodological details appendix: Countering embarrassment-avoidance among consumers

Methodological details appendix: Countering embarrassment-avoidance among consumers

See Fig. 4.

Fig. 4
figure4

Ad—Study 1

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Jiang, L., Drolet, A. & Scott, C.A. Countering embarrassment-avoidance by taking an observer's perspective. Motiv Emot 42, 748–762 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-018-9673-7

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Keywords

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