DUCKWORTH: Some people would just crawl into a cave and die.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: What’s the purpose of embarrassment?
DUCKWORTH: Why don’t you want to be up front? It’s, like, the best seat.
DUBNER: Because you get called on by the magician! And you sit in a flimsy chair, and it collapses.
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DUBNER: Angela, an email today from one Fred Wildnauer.
DUBNER: Fred’s question has to do with embarrassment. He writes, “What is the purpose of embarrassment? Could it be another form of empathy? A way of shaming our hunter-gatherer ancestors to do their duty in their community? My adult children are often embarrassed by my old-man-type behavior.” I think that’s something many of us can identify with.
DUCKWORTH: Either as the “embarrass–er” or as the “embarrass–ee.”
DUBNER: Fred concludes his email by saying, “To what purpose are we embarrassed? Why does the behavior of others embarrass us? Why do we care?” Those are a lot of really interesting questions about embarrassment. Can we start with a definition? What is it? Is it an emotion? What do you call it?
DUCKWORTH: Let me get you the A.P.A. definition — American Psychological Association. So, like, the official definition from our dictionary, as it were, is: “Embarrassment,” comma, “Noun. A self–conscious emotion in which a person feels awkward or flustered in other people’s company or because of the attention of others. It often has an element of self–deprecating humor, and is typically characterized by nervous laughter, a shy smile, or blushing.” So, yes, it’s an emotion. It has these characteristic behaviors. It has an element of self-consciousness. So, your emotion is about yourself — not about something that’s outward. But I’ve also read papers that are like, “Oh, it’s really complicated. And it’s hard to define.”
DUBNER: What would you say is the relationship between embarrassment and shame?
DUCKWORTH: So, one of my favorite researchers is June Tangney. She studies shame, and embarrassment, and also guilt. These are all from the family of self–conscious emotions. But I do think the distinction is often made that shame is about you as a person. So, I will say to you — and I can’t even believe it — but when I was in my twenties, I remember distinctly both writing in my journal and saying in my head, like, “I’m bad.”
DUBNER: Get out of here!
DUCKWORTH: I know this doesn’t sound like an Angela Duckworth thing to say. Not like, “I’m bad at playing lacrosse.” Just literally, “I’m bad,” full stop.
DUBNER: When you say “bad,” what does that mean? Like, broken? Cruel? Selfish?
DUCKWORTH: I can’t even re-create with any confidence exactly what it was that led me to that, or what I even really meant. I just remember those words: “I’m bad.” That’s a shame statement, right? It’s about you as a person in your entirety. I’m sure there was some feeling of inadequacy, particularly when I was just starting out in college. But the fact that I said that doesn’t actually have to be located in any, like, objective reality. As a young woman, I fell short of some expectation I had set for myself. I think, for many people, guilt can be more local. It could be like, “I feel guilty that I didn’t call this person back. I feel guilty that I broke up with that person on the phone.” It’s about an act. It’s not about the totality of you. There’s something less extreme about it. I think these are self-conscious emotions that can be clearly distinguished from embarrassment. You know, shame and guilt are typically moral. I think embarrassment tends not to have that moral tone.
DUBNER: The big question that I would like to know — and sounds like Fred would like to know as well — is: What is the purpose of embarrassment? As a layperson, I would think that embarrassment serves as sort of quality control, in a way. Right? If I have a job to do — let’s say I’m interviewing an important person for an article or a radio show, whatever — I don’t want to be, quote, “embarrassed” by being poorly prepared or asking bad questions. That’s going to drive me to prepare better. So, is that the way we should look at embarrassment? As a kind of negative consequence that produces theoretically positive behaviors?
DUCKWORTH: All emotions, every single one — envy, jealousy, joy — all of our feelings have a purpose. We evolved over many generations to have signals of how things were going to motivate us to do certain things. In the case of these self–conscious emotions — shame, embarrassment, guilt — the function is about preserving a kind of social order — adhering to norms that are good for other people, in particular. Like, I’ve wondered whether it’s possible to be embarrassed on a desert island.
DUCKWORTH: Let’s get real here, Stephen. Name some times where you have been embarrassed. And now pretend you were on a desert island. And I wonder whether you still would have been. So, do you want me to go first? Or would you like to start with confessions of embarrassment?
DUBNER: I’m happy to go first. But I think you’re totally right. To me, the embarrassment is the result of feeling like you are being critiqued or observed for having done something—
DUCKWORTH: By somebody else, right? By at least one other person.
DUBNER: Yeah. Of course. From my own life, since you’re asking, when I think about being embarrassed myself, most of my memories — which are very, very, very strong — are distant, from when I was quite a bit younger. Which suggests either that I no longer do embarrassing things — which is not likely — or that embarrassment may be much more salient when you’re younger.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, but you haven’t given a single example yet. Come on.
DUBNER: I know. I’m good at dodging. Okay, so, I have probably two or three moments, if I think about embarrassment, that were really strong. And I think I’ve discussed both of them on this show already. One was being asked to play “Pomp and Circumstance” on the organ at high school graduation, when I was maybe 11, 12, 13 years old , and botching it. That was horribly embarrassing. Another kind of similar–ish one: When I was about maybe 11, 12, 13, I played baseball, and I was asked to umpire for a Little League game. This was the minor leagues of Little Leagues. So, this was, like, the little, little kids — 8, 9 years old. And I remembered hearing that it was in the umpire’s discretion when to call a game — when to say, “Okay. The game is over.” Because you couldn’t always get the required innings in Little League, because they took so long, because the pitching was terrible. So, there’d be, like, 12 walks in a row, that took forever. And, I think, for the minor leagues, they were required to get in three innings or darkness. And one day, I was umping a game, and they played three innings, and it was pretty fast, but I kind of wanted to get paid my three dollars or five dollars, and go to the concession stand, and buy candy. The sun was still, like, high in the sky, and I called the game. And everybody’s looking around like, “What are you talking about? It’s not remotely dark.” And I was scolded later for that. I was embarrassed about that for a long, long time, because it was plainly, like, a really bad decision. So, when I’m thinking back to these incidents, like I say, I think it’s not a coincidence that the most memorable ones come from a long time ago, because, for me at least, embarrassment seems to serve a function of telling you how to behave a little bit better.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, so it’s like a tutor. It helps you learn the social norms.
DUBNER: Exactly. It makes you consider the downside of an action, and then reconsider, and maybe refrain. Now, how about you? What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I farted in this exam that was, like, a math-placement exam—
DUBNER: You had me at “farted.” It doesn’t matter where.
DUCKWORTH: It was, like, the first day of class at Harvard. Hundreds of my classmates. And I don’t know what I’d eaten, but whatever. It was a very loud fart. And because the room, you know, you could hear a pin drop — well, you could certainly hear a fart. I think it was a long one, too. Anyway, there was a flash of embarrassment. But I will say this: I don’t think I was as embarrassed as some other people would be.
DUBNER: How did you respond in the moment?
DUCKWORTH: Well, it was an exam. I didn’t respond at all. I just, like, kept taking the math exam, right?
DUBNER: You didn’t say, like, “Oh, I guess I shouldn’t have eaten six chili dogs last night!”
DUCKWORTH: But I remember thinking, “Wow, some people would just crawl into a cave and die.” But I’m like, “Whatever.” And you’re right that we kind of think back to these adolescent moments. You know, when you are a teenager and you are entering adulthood, it’s not a surprise that self–conscious emotions are at their high-water marks. You, as a child, aren’t really thinking about how you are relative to other people. When you’re a teenager, that is all you think about and care about. But there’s another teenage moment — in this case it was high school, I think — and I have my little plastic tray, and it’s a huge cafeteria. I mean, there are like 800 kids in my graduating class. And I just dropped it — the whole thing. Like, clattering silverware, water everywhere. The whole cafeteria then applauded, not in a nice way. So, I guess that was a moment of embarrassment. But there, too, Stephen, I remember thinking to myself — I mean, I’m sure I blushed. I’m not, like, a psychopath. Like, I can experience self–conscious emotions. But I don’t think my capacity or tendency for embarrassment is very great.
DUBNER: And do you consider that a trait of strength?
DUCKWORTH: Well, if you go back to the function— Actually, I knew a little about this, because I was a teaching assistant for John Sabini. And John Sabini thought a lot about embarrassment, and he talked about somebody who preceded him who’s very famous. He’s a sociologist, not a psychologist, named Erving Goffman. So, I’ll tell you a little bit about what John Sabini said, and also what Erving Goffman said, about the function of this emotion of embarrassment. The basic idea is: We have embarrassment, in part, to keep the social fabric from tearing. When we have these transgressions, like I say or do something that is a violation of well-accepted social norms — like, “This is the way we do things around here!” — then, we experience embarrassment. It’s essentially a way of making a reparation, and also signaling to everyone that, like, you did wrong. And, by that, we keep the fabric from tearing.
DUBNER: So, a function of embarrassment is to create a sustainable and good civilization.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, that’s right. Which is, again, good for ourselves, and then definitely good for others.
DUBNER: Let me go back, though. You said, “I felt a little bit embarrassed in the moment. I’m not a psychopath.” So, let’s talk about those who don’t feel embarrassed. On a scale of, let’s say, zero to five — let’s say five is maximum embarrassment for dropping a tray of food in a high school cafeteria — you sound like you’re putting yourself on the low side, right?
DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s use my favorite scale. I’m a zero-to-ten girl. Just because I feel like it’s very intuitive for people.
DUBNER: On a scale of zero to ten, then, you’re closer to “psychopath.”
DUCKWORTH: I might be, like, a two.
DUCKWORTH: Jason, the other day, was like, “You have a four-inch rip in your jean shorts.” And I was like, “So what?” He’s like, “Well, you can see what’s, you know, there.” And I was like, “So what?” He’s like, “Yeah, but you were already out today.” And I was like, “So what?” He was like, “You should be embarrassed.” And I was like, “I am not. I don’t care.”
DUBNER: Was he embarrassed that you weren’t embarrassed?
DUCKWORTH: Maybe he was embarrassed for me? I think he was just confused. I don’t know.
DUBNER: I mean, you can’t spell embarrassment without “bare ass” right in the middle.
DUCKWORTH: That’s true!
DUBNER: So, you’re saying you’re pretty low on the scale.
DUCKWORTH: I am.
DUBNER: How close are you to psychopathic?
DUCKWORTH: So, when we said it has a purpose — some form of prosociality. Look, Goffman was a long time ago. He’s a sociologist from the 1950s. John Sabini, sadly, passed away more than a decade ago. But there is a psychologist who’s still around, Dacher Keltner. And he wrote a paper, not too long ago, entitled “Flustered and Faithful: Embarrassment as a Signal of Prosociality.” And this is getting to your question, because it is saying that if you completely lack embarrassment, there is something antisocial about that. So, they do a series of studies, five in total, where they test the hypothesis — that really goes all the way back to Goffman — that embarrassment, though it’s unpleasant, that it serves a vital social function, as they say, “signaling the embarrassed individual’s prosociality and fostering trust.” And here’s a key line: “Extending past research on embarrassment as a nonverbal apology and appeasement gesture, the authors demonstrate that the observers recognize the expression of embarrassment as a signal of prosociality and commitment to social relationships.” In other words, not only am I signaling: “Hey, sorry. I didn’t mean to!” When we observe someone being embarrassed, we’re sort of accepting that olive branch, if you will.
DUBNER: And if we observe someone doing something that we think should warrant embarrassment and they don’t exhibit embarrassment, we think they’re a little bit off.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, this arc of experimental studies say that, when you observe someone and they are appropriately embarrassed, then you infer that they are more prosocial.
DUBNER: So, that makes sense. And let’s just consider this a spectrum. Obviously, on one side of the spectrum, experiencing no embarrassment, or shame, or guilt — let’s put that whole family down there — I could go over to my next-door neighbor’s house, and burn it down, and kill them, and not think a thing went wrong. And there, I’m plainly psychopathic. What about on the other end of the spectrum of people who are paralyzed, even, by feeling embarrassment?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think there are extremes of every emotional dimension. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the minimum or the maximum are bad. So, people who are so embarrassed that they would never do something that would run the risk of being embarrassed — like raise your hand and ask a question. At the other end, like, somebody who lacks any feeling at all for their fellow creature — I mean, you could argue that I should have been more embarrassed, right, by, like, smelling up the classroom or making a bunch of noise in the cafeteria. So, it’s not hard to imagine that the extremes are not great.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Angela quizzes Stephen to find out what form of embarrassment he dreads the most.
DUBNER: I love that you just get to ask me questions about how embarrassed I am in situations where I didn’t even do anything wrong.
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Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about embarrassment, let’s hear some thoughts from a listener. Here’s one especially illustrative voice memo from Karissa Prins.
Karissa PRINS: Can one die from secondhand embarrassment? My dad is a pastor, and one Sunday morning he made the unfortunate error of calling the church the “orgasm of Christ” instead of “organism.” Freudian slip? We’ll never know. Thus began my sex education.
Thanks to Karissa for sharing her experience! Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about the psychology of embarrassment.
DUCKWORTH: So, there is a famous study that, of course, you know about — the Milgram studies that were conducted at Yale University, where Stanley Milgram would bring a research subject into the room, and you were asked to essentially increase the electric shock for this person that you thought was an actual other research participant, but they were just an actor.
DUBNER: And the electric shocks were not real. They made a sound effect that made you think they were real.
DUCKWORTH: Everything was a sham. But you, as a research participant, just think it’s all real. Like, “Hey, this is a learning experiment. We’re interested in how pain and electric shock can either make things easier or harder to learn. So, this person’s going to be, like, reading these words. Every time they make a mistake, turn up the shock and shock them more.” And by the way, the actor would pretend to be in more and more pain. In fact, at the very top end of the shock scale, would be saying things like, “My heart, my heart! I can’t take it anymore.” So many people turned up the shock. And, in fact, I think nobody actually left the experiment in protest. So, John Sabini taught social psychology. That’s the class that I T.A.-ed for him. And the popular interpretation of this classic experiment was like, “Wow, situations have a huge impact on behavior. And we have the false impression that, really, we’re driven by conscience and integrity. But really, in the right situation, any of us could do anything.” It was actually a kind of response to Nazi Germany. Like, how did people do cruel things? But Sabini had a very, very different and unpopular interpretation of those exact results. Those research participants — “Turn up the shock!” “Okay.” “Zzzt!” — he thinks that they were embarrassed. These research participants found it awkward to say to the experimenter, “No.” In fact, he wrote this paper called, “Who Is Embarrassed by What?” published in 2000. And he says there are three categorically different reasons why we get embarrassed. They’re kind of fun to read. So, first let me read you this scenario. And then you can answer, on a scale from zero to ten, how embarrassed you would be. “I was the best man at my brother’s wedding. I got up at the reception to make the ceremonial toast. Halfway through, my brother leaned over to me and whispered, ‘Your fly is open.’”
DUBNER: Okay. Um, seven!
DUCKWORTH: Here’s another one: “I recently attended my friend’s college graduation. I was sitting on one of those flimsy metal folding chairs. As I shifted my weight to get more comfortable, the chair collapsed and went crashing to the floor during the honorary degree recipient’s speech.”
DUBNER: Yeah, the old collapsing chair.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, Stephen. Don’t overthink this. Give me a number, zero to ten.
DUBNER: Eight, eight-and-a-half, nine. Yeah, that feels terrible.
DUCKWORTH: So, those are items from the “faux pas” subscale. These are classic, canonical embarrassment moments. I think some version of this probably has happened to most of us. But here are two items from another subscale: “I was attending a magic show with some friends. It was a packed auditorium, but we were sitting at the front, close to the stage.”
DUBNER: Mistake number one.
DUCKWORTH: The magician said she needed an assistant from the audience for her next trick. She called on me to come up onstage and help.
DUCKWORTH: Zero to ten, go.
DUBNER: Ten-and-a-half. In addition, I’m yelling at myself for buying tickets that are up front or for being invited by somebody who had the temerity to buy tickets up front at a magic show. You don’t do that!
DUCKWORTH: Wait, why don’t you want to be up front? It’s, like, the best seat.
DUBNER: Because you get called on by the magician! And then you get up there and your fly is down! And you sit in a flimsy chair, and it collapses.
DUCKWORTH: Let me ask you one other one. “As I entered my apartment on my birthday, 25 people yelled, ‘Surprise!’” Give me a zero to ten. How embarrassed are you?
DUBNER: I actually had that happen. For my 50th birthday, my wife threw a pretty great surprise party. It was at a restaurant, and it’s funny because I would not have associated it at all with the emotion that we’re talking about today, embarrassment, but apparently — I don’t really remember this — but apparently I just turned around and walked out of the room for about two minutes.
DUBNER: I was happy, and grateful, and excited. But I’m not big on being the focal point, I guess.
DUCKWORTH: And that is the “center of attention” subscale. So, the claim here is that sometimes we experience the emotion of embarrassment without having done anything wrong. It’s just because we’re the center of attention.
DUBNER: Especially when you’re not choosing to do so — like, at the magic show or the surprise party. Interesting.
DUCKWORTH: Let me now move on to the third and last sub-scale.
DUBNER: I love that you just get to ask me questions about how embarrassed I am in situations where I didn’t even do anything wrong, and yet you’re still getting embarrassment out of me for non-action.
DUCKWORTH: I know. This is great. I love this!
DUBNER: I’m having a great time.
DUCKWORTH: And also, by the way, I’m making you the center of attention.
DUBNER: Yeah, great. Perfect.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, you’re almost done. Third and final subscale that John Sabini and colleagues created and administered. It’s got an item that goes like this: “I suspected, but I wasn’t sure, that an employee I supervised was stealing from the petty-cash box. It was clear that I was going to have to confront him.” Give me a number zero to ten. How embarrassed are you?
DUBNER: Gosh! Again, I never would’ve attached the word “embarrassment” to that scenario. I would definitely feel uncomfortable about it. Maybe “conflict-averse” would come to mind. But if I’m looking for a negative association on a scale of zero to ten, ten being the most negative, I would say, yeah, eight.
DUCKWORTH: So, this is the “sticky situation” subscale. And so, to summarize, Sabini was interested in embarrassment. He wondered whether there was something else going on in those Milgram studies that nobody really understood. And this last subscale is exactly what he thought was going on. It’s like, “Awkward!” It’s like you don’t have a script. You don’t know exactly what to say. So that, he offered, was not only an explanation for the Milgram study, but, like, many other findings that he cataloged where people thought, “Oh I wonder what’s going on. Maybe it’s the situation.” He was like, “No. People are just embarrassed.” Now, I don’t think you would agree that’s exactly embarrassment, but you probably would agree with the general thesis.
DUBNER: Yeah. And I think that what you’re describing is a broader thing within a lot of academic research, where there’s research done that would seem to be logical and sensible, but the conclusions drawn from it may feel exaggerated. I’ll give an example. These are maybe descendants of Milgram, and it would be interesting to know where Sabini lay on this scale. I think of our mutual friend and great economic researcher, John List, who 20 years ago or so started re-creating a very famous lab experiment called the Dictator Game — these experiments that had been run over the years, mostly by psychologists originally, but then economists started to do them too. They thought that they were measuring altruism, essentially. And John List came along and said, “You know, I think the way these experiments are set up, it may appear to be measuring altruism, but I think what it’s measuring more is the effect of scrutiny.” In other words, there’s an authority figure who says, “Here’s an envelope with ten single dollar bills in it. And down the hall, there’s someone a lot like you: a student who shows up for this experiment, and they don’t get an envelope with any money. If you so choose, you can give some, or none, or all of your money to that person. How much would you like to give?” And on average, I think people gave roughly three dollars, which seems to be incredibly altruistic, right? In the real world, how often does that happen? Let’s say you find some money. Do you immediately go out and give 30 percent to someone that you don’t even know and maybe will never see?
DUCKWORTH: Hard to imagine.
DUBNER: Right. So, John List was thinking, “Well, maybe this is not so much about altruism. Maybe it’s about the power of scrutiny.” I really like what you’re saying about Sabini taking a deeper or different look at the Milgram experiments. Because it’s hard to explain, otherwise. And it does make me think of when there are these heightened moments, especially played out in public, just how incredibly awkward it is where people know there’s a social norm, but they can’t quite let themselves act on it. I think back to the Oscars, where Will Smith gets up and slaps Chris Rock. And the weirdest thing — of all the things that were weird about it — was that he, Will Smith, afterwards, didn’t seem embarrassed, or ashamed, or guilty, at least in the moment.
DUCKWORTH: Yes! By the way, you know, I’m a huge Will Smith fan, so that was a very dark moment in my life. I was like, “What?!” But you’re right. The ceremony went on, and when the camera went to Will Smith, it wasn’t what everybody was hoping for. People were expecting him to feel one of these self–conscious emotions: shame, guilt, embarrassment.
DUBNER: Let me ask you this. Fred, in his email, wrote: “My adult children are often embarrassed by my old-man-type behavior. To what purpose? Why does the behavior of others embarrass us? Why do we care?” So, let’s put ourselves in that case. What function is that emotion serving?
DUCKWORTH That’s interesting! I have to guess. You know, my mom answers her cell phone all the time and anytime. I remember calling her once. She was like, “Oh, I’m just at the front row of the opera.” And I was like, “Why are you answering your—? Hang up! Or I’ll hang up. I’m hanging up.” So, I was embarrassed, I guess, for her? From her? Of her?
DUBNER: All of the above?
DUCKWORTH: I guess, when we are embarrassed about our parents — and I think it often is that direction, right? I think rarely are parents as embarrassed about their children as children are seemingly—
DUBNER: Oh, I don’t know. My children have embarrassed me thousands of times.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, maybe it goes both ways. But the point is that, you know, I always think about family. You feel like you’re an individual, but you’re also just part of, like, one unit. So, being embarrassed about your mom or your dad is like being embarrassed about your collective self. It’s hard for me to imagine, for example, a complete stranger doing something — like I watch it on T.V., whatever — for that embarrassment to feel the same way as me being embarrassed about my mother.
DUBNER: When you’re looking at someone that you don’t know very, very, very well, and you make eye contact, but then you feel yourself compelled to look away — you feel that it’s hard to maintain eye contact — is that embarrassment?
DUCKWORTH: I think that, in the catalog of things that people do — like, cover their mouth, blush, make a self–deprecating comment — I think gaze-aversion, like, looking away—
DUBNER: It’s a response to embarrassment, perhaps?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, the funny thing about emotion is, I think, people immediately think of the feeling of emotion. We know what it feels like to feel guilty. We know what it feels like to be happy. But when you study emotions, they typically have a cognitive element — like, “here’s the thought that goes with that emotion” — and also there’s often a behavior that goes with it, or sometimes a physiological response, like your heart rate, et cetera. So, this is all part of an emotional response, and there is a behavior element. And I think the gaze aversion — if you want to go all the way back to this evolutionary story, could be, like, a submissive behavior. Some emotion psychologists have argued that when you look at primates, for example, and there is a violation of the societal hierarchy. And also, when you are trying to signal submission to a more dominant ape, you do these, like, bowing behaviors. And gaze aversion could also be one of those. But it could also just be like, “I don’t want you to look at me, right? Center of attention.”
DUBNER: So, embarrassment, as we’ve been talking about it, I would assume, is what we would call a learned behavior. If you were born and put on a desert island all by yourself, even if then we imported a bunch of tourists on a cruise ship to watch you, you might not be embarrassed by any of the things you did that they might consider embarrassing, because they don’t violate any social norms, right?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, because you don’t have the norms to be violated? I think that’s right, partly because it does not seem like very young children — let’s say, before the age of 18 months or 2 years — they don’t seem very capable of embarrassment or actually, in any meaningful way, other self–conscious emotions, like shame or guilt. You know, like, babies don’t feel bad that the bowl clatters to the floor and sprays spaghetti everywhere. They don’t feel embarrassed. They don’t feel ashamed. So, it’s interesting that, in that third year of life, you start to feel those self–conscious emotions — not nearly at the magnitude of a teenager. And another psychologist that I worked for, Jerry Kagan, thought the emergence of these self–conscious emotions that have something to do with societal norms, something to do with morality — he had this provocative theory that it’s around age 2 or 3 that your mom is likely to have another kid. And the reason why we have these emotions come online when they do is that, otherwise, you would just kill the other kid. You would just be like, “Oh, baby — competition.” So, that’s hard to test empirically, but I’ll just say, like, yes, it’s learned to some extent, but also, it’s kind of programmed to be learned. What to be embarrassed by might differ a little bit across culture, but embarrassment is universal.
DUBNER: Circling back to Fred’s question, where he writes that he is often a source of embarrassment for his adult children, who he says are embarrassed “by my old-man-type behavior.” Notice he adds the word “type.” It’s not just old-man behavior. It’s “old-man-type behavior.”
DUCKWORTH: Old-man Fred.
DUBNER: So, this implies that we’re looking at an inverted U-shape of embarrassment recognition — that little, little, little kids don’t recognize it, don’t feel it, don’t exhibit it, and then, maybe older, older people don’t either. That’s the Hollywood cliche, right? “Grumpy old men.” “I don’t give a crap what you think about my behavior, my clothes, my blank, my blank.” Do we know anything about that? Do we know if embarrassment actually diminishes with age?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t want to say that “it is not known,” but Angela Duckworth doesn’t know. If there were a parabola where there’s a peak, I’m going to guess that teenage years are its very, very high watermark. And then maybe it sort of declines over adulthood, such that when you get to the 70s and 80s, you’re like, “The hell with all of you. I don’t care.” I think that’s a very good hypothesis, Stephen. We’ll call it the Dubner Curve.
DUBNER: Let’s call it the Fred Wildnauer curve.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t want to make you the center of attention. So, yes.
DUBNER: But it does sound like Fred is kind of taking delight in the fact that his behavior embarrasses his adult children. It doesn’t bother him at all, to the point where he wrote an email to us — using his real name. He’s drawing attention to himself for having done these allegedly embarrassing things, but it sounds like he doesn’t give much of a crap. So, all I’m saying is that, if we’re looking for a role model to follow in our lives of withstanding embarrassment — maybe even embracing it — I think Fred might be my new hero.
DUCKWORTH: We could do worse than Fred Wildnauer.
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No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation.
In the first half of the show, Stephen recalls that when he was working as a Little League umpire, regulations mandated that the game needed to reach three innings or darkness. It’s unclear what the rules were when young Stephen was umping, but according to Little League International, today’s teams are required to complete four innings — not just three.
Later, Angela says that she doesn’t think that any of the participants in the infamous Milgram experiments left the experiment in protest. It’s true that nobody literally walked out of the room, but participants did resist to different degrees. In the original experiment, 65 percent of the participants continued to the highest level shock — 450 voltz — and all participants delivered at least 300 voltz. However, in later versions of the experiment obedience dropped depending on different factors. For example, when participants were paired with others who seemed to disobey the authority figures, their obedience level dropped to only 10 percent.
Finally, Stephen and Angela wonder if embarrassment diminishes with age. While I couldn’t find a solid answer for this specific question, there has been research on the correlation between age and other self-conscious emotions like guilt and shame. A 2010 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined self-conscious emotions in nearly 3,000 individuals from ages 13 to 89. The authors found that the older people tended to be more prone to what they called “psychologically adaptive self-conscious emotions, such as guilt and authentic pride,” and less prone to “psychologically maladaptive ones, such as shame and hubristic pride.”
That’s it for the fact-check.
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Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Why is Angie stepping down as C.E.O. of Character Lab?
DUCKWORTH: I am not someone who wants to lead. I want everyone to use my ideas and pay attention to me, but I don’t want to do the hard work of leadership.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had help this week from Lyric Bowditch and Jacob Clemente. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, and Alina Kulman. We had additional research assistance from Anya Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: What about as a parent with young kids, let’s say? And your kid stands up on the table in the restaurant and starts throwing mashed potatoes.
DUCKWORTH: That’s a reflection on you, Stephen. What kind of parent are you to have raised a kid to stand on the table?
- Erving Goffman, professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Jerome Kagan, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
- Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
- John List, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
- Stanley Milgram, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
- John Sabini, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- June Tangney, professor of psychology at George Mason University.
- “The Milgram Shock Experiment,” by Saul McLeod (Simply Psychology, 2017).
- The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development, by Jerome Kagan (2013).
- “Flustered and Faithful: Embarrassment as a Signal of Prosociality,” by Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer, and Dacher Keltner (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012).
- “Tracking the Trajectory of Shame, Guilt, and Pride Across the Life Span,” by Ulrich Orth, Richard W. Robins, and Christopher J. Soto (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010).
- “Born to Blush,” by Dacher Keltner (Greater Good Magazine, 2009).
- “On the Interpretation of Giving in Dictator Games,” by John A. List (Journal of Political Economy, 2007).
- “Lack of Character? Situationism Critiqued,” by John Sabini and Maury Silver (Ethics, 2005).
- “Who is Embarrassed by What?” by John Sabini, Michael Siepmann, Julia Stein, and Marcia Meyerowitz (Cognition and Emotion, 2000).
- “Are Shame, Guilt, and Embarrassment Distinct Emotions?” by June Price Tangney, Rowland S. Miller, Laura Flicker, and Deborah Hill Barlow (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996).
- “Embarrassment and Social Organization,” by Erving Goffman (American Journal of Sociology, 1956).