Media Releases

People prefer products that help them ‘save face’ in embarrassing moments

August 14, 2013

TORONTO, ON — Peo­ple who are feel­ing embar­rassed are more like­ly to choose items that hide or ‘repair’ the face, accord­ing to new research pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, a jour­nal of the Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence. The research indi­cates that feel­ings of embar­rass­ment can be alle­vi­at­ed by using so-called ‘restora­tive’ prod­ucts — effec­tive­ly help­ing peo­ple to “save face.”

“Pre­vi­ous research on embar­rass­ment main­ly doc­u­ments that embar­rassed indi­vid­u­als are moti­vat­ed to avoid pub­lic expo­sure,” explains Ping Dong, a doc­tor­al stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment and lead author of the new research. “How­ev­er, lit­tle work has been done to exam­ine how they could cope with embar­rass­ment.”

Dong and col­leagues Xun (Irene) Huang of Sun Yat-Sen Uni­ver­si­ty and Robert S. Wyer, Jr. of the Chi­nese Uni­ver­si­ty of Hong Kong hypoth­e­sized that metaphor­i­cal rea­son­ing — the idea of ‘sav­ing face’ — might be one tool for cop­ing with embar­rass­ment, a com­mon neg­a­tive emo­tion.

In their first exper­i­ment, Dong and col­leagues asked some par­tic­i­pants to describe an embar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tion from their past, while oth­ers in the con­trol group were sim­ply asked to describe a typ­i­cal day at school; lat­er, all par­tic­i­pants rat­ed var­i­ous pairs of sun­glass­es.

The find­ings showed that par­tic­i­pants who reliv­ed their embar­rass­ing expe­ri­ence tend­ed to pre­fer large, dark­ly-tint­ed sun­glass­es. In effect, they favoured the options that cov­ered up their faces.

In anoth­er exper­i­ment, embar­rassed par­tic­i­pants expressed greater inter­est in sun­glass­es and restora­tive face creams – prod­ucts that would con­ceal or cov­er the faces — than in scarves or shoes.

Addi­tion­al research revealed that par­tic­i­pants who actu­al­ly used the ‘restora­tive’ facial cream after re-expe­ri­enc­ing an embar­rass­ing moment report­ed low­er embar­rass­ment rat­ings, and they were more like­ly to seek out social inter­ac­tion. Wear­ing sun­glass­es, how­ev­er, did not seem to alle­vi­ate feel­ings of embar­rass­ment.

“Although embar­rass­ment leads peo­ple both to hide their face and to restore their face, only by restor­ing their face can their embar­rass­ment be decreased, as evi­denced in their greater desire to par­tic­i­pate in social activ­i­ties,” Dong explains. “It is inter­est­ing to spec­u­late that peo­ple who wear cos­met­ics on a dai­ly basis may be more tol­er­ant of poten­tial­ly embar­rass­ing behav­iour.”

The find­ings high­light the uncon­scious influ­ence that metaphor­i­cal think­ing can have on every­day behav­iours, but Dong notes that this influ­ence may depend on cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences not exam­ined in the present stud­ies giv­en that all par­tic­i­pants were Hong Kong Chi­nese.

“The metaphor­i­cal con­cept of ‘hid­ing one’s face’ is fair­ly wide­spread, but the con­cepts of ‘los­ing face’ and ‘sav­ing face’ are more per­va­sive in Asian than in West­ern cul­tures,” she observes. “Although the effects of embar­rass­ment on sym­bol­i­cal­ly hid­ing one’s face are like­ly to gen­er­al­ize to West­ern cul­tures, the effect of sym­bol­i­cal­ly restor­ing one’s face might not.”

This research was sup­port­ed by the Research Grants Coun­cil of Hong Kong.

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