Their discovery is not quite as momentous as the researchers think, but Melissa Dahl asks the right questions about it in her New York Magazine report.
The topic is embarrassment. Researchers wanted to figure out whether you can be embarrassed by something that occurs in private. You see, embarrassment involves the way you look to other people. If you do something that would, in the eyes of other people, look embarrassing, do you still feel embarrassment when no one else is looking? Apparently, the study avoided the question of how you look to yourself.
We note in passing that embarrassment is a lesser degree of shame.
The question of private embarrassment reminds one of an old problem: if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it still make a sound?
Aside from the fact that one is hard put to imagine a world where there is no living creature in the woods that can hear, the philosopher’s answer, which we apparently owe to Bishop Berkeley, is that Yes, it does make a sound, because God hears it.
Dahl summarizes the current social psychological definition of embarrassment:
Embarrassment has long been thought of as a social emotion, one that depends on your having an audience to witness whatever ridiculous thing you’ve just done. It’s long been theorized that the feeling of embarrassment alerts you to the fact that you’ve violated some social norm, so that you can course-correct and apologize if necessary, without losing your standing in the group. The social nature of embarrassment has been thought to explain the feeling's physiological response, too – in particular, blushing – in that it alerts others to your emotional state. You know you messed up, and you are feeling properly awkward about it.
One is happy to see the terms defined so well.
Dahl is correct to be slightly dismayed at the way the latest research has been conceptualized. The researchers base their study on the notion that there is such a thing as a perfectly private experience, or better, that people cease to be social beings when they are out of everyone’s sight.
The example given concerns a twenty-one year old college student who still wets his bed:
He has a private room; no one will ever know about his nocturnal bladder-control issues. And yet the very thought of it still embarrasses him.
To this Dahl astutely responds that, after all, the man’s experience is not exactly private, since he reported it to the researchers.
In Dahl’s words:
Still, speaking of private embarrassment, you have to feel for the study volunteer who confided in the researchers about the bed-wetting. His identity wasn’t used, true, but you imagine he might nonetheless be experiencing some private embarrassment if he ever sees the resulting paper, as his predicament was used as its title: “Wetting the bed at twenty-one: Embarrassment as a private emotion.”
Dare we also mention that the man will undoubtedly need to report the problem to a physician? It is not normal to wet your bed at twenty-one and it undoubtedly will require medical or psychiatric attention. The researchers are wrong to say that the man is suffering from a purely private emotion.
We will not speculate about the possibilities for exposure that arise when said young man sets about to clean up. This suggests, again, that such an action will be very difficult to keep totally private. And also, how does he look to himself when he does such a thing?
One suspects that this has happened to him before. If it happened at home or when he did not have a private room, other people knew about it. Thus, his current feeling of embarrassment might very well have been a recollection of a past trauma.
I have not read the study, but one likes to remain optimistic and hope that the authors have considered it. If they did they would understand that embarrassment is rarely, if ever, a private emotion. It is always a social emotion, an emotion that designates you as a social being.
It’s not the experiment that is wrong as much as the manner of conceptualizing the issue. Why not consider the reaction of a teenager who sexts? Let’s say that she sends a picture to someone who is near and dear. Or let’s imagine that she takes a picture merely to look at it herself.
As long as the picture is on her iPhone or on the iPhone of someone she loves, the risk for exposure, in her mind, has diminished considerably. In both cases, we can say that the image is, for all intents and purposes, private.
But, what happens when her true love decides to share the image with the hockey team, so that now it is exhibited in public? Would you say, merely on the basis of what you know about human experience, that there is no difference between exposing yourself to someone you love and exposing yourself to everyone you know?
Or else, take the example of the twenty-one year old bed wetter. Let’s say that he gets over his problem and gets up at night to relieve himself as other people do. In principle his action is private. One suspects that he was not doing it in front of an audience. And let’s imagine that he discovers one day that it was all being filmed, without his knowledge. Unfortunately, we know that such things happen. Do you think that his level of embarrassment about using the facilities normally and his level of embarrassment at knowing that the image of his doing so has been put up on the internet would be the same?
Common sense tells us otherwise.
The researchers use the example of a man filling a prescription for Viagra at a pharmacy.
In another experiment, they asked a group of men to imagine that they were purchasing Viagra because they were struggling with impotence; some were asked to consider how they’d feel if they purchased it in public, and others were asked to think about buying it online. Both groups independently predicted feeling similar levels of embarrassment.
Perhaps we should ask former Sen. Bob Dole about this, but hasn’t Viagra become something of a mainstream drug, used by people who have ED and also by people who do not have ED?
Be that as it may, buying the drug online does open the risk for exposure. As for buying it in a pharmacy, it does depend on whether you know or do not know the pharmacist, whether you have a relationship with him, etc.
And we know-- some people have learned it the hard way—that online information is not perfectly secure. Unless the online pharmacy is run by robots, a human being will be processing the order and will know your name. Admittedly, he will be much further away from you than will the local pharmacist, but still, the act of purchasing medication cannot really be completely private.
Again, I do not find this example to be especially useful.
One wonders whether there is such a thing as a completely private experience? Admittedly, we all have private parts, but, their being private means that they are not exposed in public, not that no one but ourselves sees them or knows anything about them.
Human beings are social beings. They are social beings even if they are not surrounded by people. Even if they do strange things in private they still calculate the possibility that someone might at some point learn about what they are doing.
An old Chinese adage, perhaps Confucian, suggests that a sincere man does not take advantage of a darkened room. The sage was not suggesting that we are always exposed, always on stage, living in a Truman show, but that you should not use the expectation of privacy to justify indulging in bad habits. If you act one way in private and another way in public, it is almost inevitable that the bad private behavior will seep over into the public domain. If you want to act well in public, the best way to ensure it is to act well in private, consistently.
If you are learning table manners, for example, and you choose to use one set in public and another in private, the chances are better that you will slip up in public and indulge some bad manners. When you have two possible sets of table manners—one for you when alone and one for you with other people-- you will need to think, when you are eating with other people, about which set to use, which gesture to use. Your behavior will then become awkward and constricted, undermining dinner table harmony.