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Its Distinct Form and Appeasement Functions




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Psychological Bulletin 1997. \W. 122. No, 3, 250-270 Copyright 1997 by the American Psychological Association. Inc. 0033-2909(97/53.00 Embarrassment: Its Distinct Form and Appeasement Functions Dacher Keltner University of California, Berkeley Brenda N. Buswell University of Wisconsin—Madison The authors address 2 questions about embarrassment. First, Is embarrassment a distinct emotion? The evidence indicates that the antecedents, experience, and display of embarrassment, and to a limited extent its autonomic physiology, are distinct from shame, guilt, and amusement and share the dynamic, temporal characteristics of emotion. Second, What are the theoretical accounts of embarrassment? Three accounts focus on the causes of embarrassment, positing that it follows the loss of self-esteem, concern for others' evaluations, or absence of scripts to guide interactions. A fourth account focuses on the effects of the remedial actions of embarrassment, which correct preceding transgressions. A fifth account focuses on the functional parallels between embarrassment and nonhuman appeasement. The discussion focuses on unanswered questions about embarrassment. Embarrassment is not an irrational impulse breaking through socially prescribed behavior but part of this orderly behavior itself. (Goffman, 1956, pp. 270-271) Embarrassment has a checkered history in the social sciences. For certain theorists, embarrassment is woven into the very fab- ric of harmonious social relations, serving as an emotional mechanism that enables people to maintain the stability of moral communities in the seemingly ordinary interactions of quotidian life (Goffman, 1967; Miller & Leary, 1992; Scheff, 1988). People's experience and display of embarrassment, from this perspective, play a critical role in socialization practices, such as teasing and punishment, the motivation of moral behavior and conformity, the development of the conscience, and the negotiation of social roles and status (Ausubel, 1955; Clark, 1990; Keltner, Young, & Buswell, in press; Kochanska, 1993; Miller, 1996; Miller & Leary, 1992; Scheff, 1988). Traditional emotion researchers, however, have largely ig- nored embarrassment. Darwin (1872, pp. 309-346) failed to consider embarrassment in his analysis of the blush.1 Subsequent theorists have not extensively considered embarrassment in their theorizing or empirical studies (Izard, 1977; Lazarus, 1991; Plutchik, 1984; Roseman, Wiest, & Swartz, 1994; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985; Tomkins, 1963). Theorists have described em- barrassment as a less intense, less serious variant of shame (Lewis, 1993; Tomkins, 1963), a form of social anxiety (Schlenker & Leary, 1982), a dejection-related emotion whose prototypical member is sadness (Higgins, 1987; Shaver, Schwartz, Kirson, & O'Connor, 1987), a secondary emotion Dacher Keltner, Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley; Brenda N. Buswell, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin—Madison. We are grateful to Lisa Capps, Paul Ekman, James Gross, and June P. Tangney for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this article. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dacher Keltner, Department of Psychology, University of California, 3210 Tbl- man Hall, Berkeley, California 94720-1650. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to [email protected] (Lewis, Stanger, Sullivan, & Barone, 1991), or a more cogni- tively complex emotion (e.g., Campos, Barrett, Lamb, Gold- smith, & Stenberg, 1983). Recently, however, research has begun to illuminate the defin- ing characteristics ...





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