How people symbolically cope with embarrassment

MAJOR REPLICATION EXPERIMENTAL REPORT

The Illusion of Saving Face: How People Symbolically Cope With Embarrassment

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Introduction

People feel embarrassed when a socially unacceptable act is witnessed by others. It is a purely public emotion, which sets it apart from other negative emotions, such as apathy and fear, which can still be experienced even if one is alone. The metaphor “to save one’s face” or “to hide one’s face” applies to someone when an individual experiences embarrassment. According to Goffman (1955), “the “face” is a mask or an image of the self which is presented to society to reach a positive and approved social value”. People are emotionally attached to this “face” and will strive to maintain the “face” they have created. As a result, embarrassment can impair the social interactions among individuals. Feelings of embarrassment will prompt individuals to find ways in preventing the circumstances that could generate these feelings such as being observed by others (Dong, Huang & Wyer Jr., 2013). This is then manifested in the physical sense such as evading eye contact or wearing accessories that will literally hide one’s face.

The neurons which conceptualize abstract thoughts are also responsible for characterizing sensory experiences (Lakoff & Johnson in Meier, 2004). This implies that in comprehending metaphors, people tend to give them a concrete physical counterpart. Applying this in the study, people will cope with negative emotions by avoiding social contact to eliminate the negative feeling by literally hiding their face. The metaphorical objective (to hide the psychological face) is attained by concrete related means (to cover the physical face).

In a study by Zhong, and Liljenquist (2006), an experiment was conducted that would determine whether physical cleanliness is associated with moral cleanliness. In the experiment, participants were asked to recall an ethical or unethical deed that they have done in their lives and to describe any emotions or feelings they experienced. They were then asked to answer a word completion task (e.g W_ _ H, S_ _ _ _ R, S _ _ P) which could be anwered as cleansing-related words (WASH, SHOWER, SOAP) or an unrelated words (WISH, SHAKER, STEP). Their results showed that those who recalled an unethical deed were able to answer more cleansing-related words. Their results confirm that moral impurity stimulates a need for physical cleansing. In relation to our study, this experiment supports the theory that metaphors (moral purity) are associated with concrete physical experiences (physical cleaning).

The study focuses on the coping strategies that individuals use when placed in embarrassing situations. It is hypothesized that when individuals are embarrassed, they become attracted to products that symbolically and literally cover their face. In this study, covering one’s face is represented by providing images of a person wearing different four kinds of sunglasses which differ in size (large vs. small) and tint (dark vs. light). When a participant is placed in the embarrassment condition, they would prefer the large and dark-tinted sunglasses compared to participants in the no-embarrassment condition.

Methodology

The effect size computed by using the mean and standard deviation of the results from an earlier experiment was 1.28632 (Dong, Huang, & Wyer, 2013). This yielded a sample size of 18. This was then increased to 30 participants by adding 50% (n=27) and then rounding it off to a multiple of 5 so that it has greater statistical power. There were 15 males and 15 females who participated in the study, ages ranging from 16 to 24 years old..

The experimental design used in the study was both a between-subjects design and within-subjects design. The between-subjects independent variables are the embarrassment and no-embarrassment conditions. The within-subjects independent variables are the no tint and tinted and small and large eyewear. While the dependent variable is the likeness of the eyewears.

The materials used were consent forms, papers, pens, a debriefing script, questionnaires which contains the Likert-type scales, and four pictures of a model wearing four types of eyewear: small-no tint eyewear, small-tinted eyewear, large-no tint eyewear, and large-tinted eyewear which will be shown using a computer, and incentives. Also, participants who are students from De La Salle University-Manila (DLSU-M) received stickers from the Psychology Laboratory for joining the experiment.

Participants were asked to sign an informed consent form and were given the token immediately before starting the experiment. They were given a blank sheet of paper, the questionnaire and a pen and were randomly assigned via fishbowl sampling to one of the conditions. The participants in the embarrassment condition were asked to describe and write down their most embarrassing situation for 4 minutes. On the other hand, the participants in the no-embarrassment condition were asked to describe and write down a typical situation in their lives for 4 minutes. Experimenters were not allowed to comment or respond to the experience given by the participant to prevent biases in the responses of the participant in the latter part of the experiment. Then, they rated how interested, embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, angry and upset they were in doing the task, 1 (not interested at all) to 9 (very interested).

Another researcher assisted the participants where they were told that the next task is a product evaluation for the eyewears. Participants in both conditions were shown four pictures of a model wearing four different types of eyewear: small-no tint eyewear, small-tinted eyewear, large-no tint eyewear, and large-tinted eyewear. They rated each of the eyewear, 1 (dislike) to 9 (like). Then, they rated how likely were they to purchase each pair, 1 (least likely) to 9 (most likely). Lastly, the experimenters debriefed the participants regarding the true objective and theories behind the experiment and were given the time to ask their own questions regarding the experiment.

The possible threat to internal validity was the possible bias in results. If the participants knew the objective of the experiment, his or her judgements may be biased to be similar with the predicted results. To prevent this, the participants were not completely told on the true nature of the experiment. To ensure that there was a manifestation of embarrassment in the embarrassment condition, participants were given 4 minutes to recall and write about the most embarrassing experience they have had. In addition, all participants were asked to rate their feelings of embarrassment to be able to check if the manipulation was successful. Lastly, to rule out other possible extraneous variables, participants also rated themselves in other dimensions of emotions (angry, afraid, upset, and ashamed) and their interest in doing the activity.

A possible threat to external validity was limiting the participant to a certain society or group and doing the experiment in a place where there are possible distractions.To prevent this, any participant was allowed to join the experiment as long as they were 16 years old onwards; they were not limited to DLSU-M students. Also, participants underwent the activities alone and were not allowed to use their gadgets to prevent outside influences. The experiment was held in an area, such as the experiment laboratory where there were little to no people and minimal distraction. Furthermore, the experimenter is not allowed to have a conversation with the participant especially if the participant started to ask questions regarding the connection between the two parts of the experiment. As much as possible, the experimenters only said what was written in the experimental script.

Results

According to the F ratio, [F(1,28)=34.759, p<0.01] participants in the embarrassment condition (M=5.667, SD=2.257) were more embarrassed than those in the no-embarrassment condition (M=1.667, SD=1.345).

Although participants in the embarrassment condition generally rated the eyewear slightly higher compared to the participants in the no-embarrassment condition, the results show that there is no significant difference.

The likeness for the eyewears were compared using various t-tests. It revealed that participants who were in the embarrassment condition prefer a clear (M=6.067, SD=1.580) and large (M=5.667, SD=1.384) eyewear compared to a dark (M=4.500, SD=1.376) and small (M=4.900, SD=1.549) eyewear. While those who were in the no-embarrassment condition prefer a clear (M=5.233, SD=1.474) and large (M=4.800, SD=1.634) eyewear compared to a dark (M=4.133, SD=1.633) and small (M=4.567, SD=1.486) eyewear. Lastly, the analysis show that there is no significant interaction between condition, tint and size on the likeness of the eyewear, F(1,28)= 1.962, p=0.172.

Discussion

The results indicate that the hypothesis should be rejected. Embarrassment did not affect an individual’s preference on eyewear. Although participants rated the clear and large eyewear the highest, there was no significant difference in eyewear preference of both conditions. Therefore, the association between metaphors and physical experiences was not evident in the experiment. Furthermore, the participants in the embarrassment condition rated the eyewear with clear tint rather higher than the eyewear with dark tint, which was contrary to the hypothesis of the study.

Various explanations were explored regarding the outcome of the study. Some participants said that they gave a higher rating to the clear eyewears due to the their need of wearing eyeglasses. One possibility that explains the result gathered was that they based their decision on need which overpowered the influence of being embarrassed. In addition to this, other participants based their likeness of the eyewear on how it would suit their face shape, size and skin tone. The effect of embarrassment was not enough to influence their preference.

Another explanation could be the manifestation of response bias in the participants in the embarrassing condition when answering the questionnaires. Response bias, specifically demand characteristics, may be related to the results of the study since participants in the embarrassment condition were asked to write their “most embarrassing experience” and then were later asked to rate how embarrassed they were. Due to demand characteristics, participants may have overreported their ratings in embarrassment.

References

Dong P., Huang X., & Wyer R. (2013) The Illusion of Saving Face: How People Symbolically Cope With Embarrassment. Psychological Science 24(10), 2005-2012.

Goffman, E. (1955). On Face-work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements of Social Interaction. Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes 18(3), 213-231.

Meier, B. P., Robinson, M. D., & Clore, G. L. (2004). Why Good Guys Wear White: Automatic Inferences About Stimulus Valence Based on Brightness. Psychological Science, 15(2), 82-87. Retrieved from < http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.01502002.x>

Zhong, C. B.< & Liljenquist, K. (2006). Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science, 313, 1451-1452. Retrieved from < http://dx.doi.org/ .1126/science.1130726.x>

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