Chapter 11: Negative Self-Conscious Emotions

Facial Expressions

In Keltner’s (1995) classic study, he utilized data from participants who had recently completed the Directed Facial Action (DFA) task in an earlier unrelated study.  This task is described here .  The data from participants who reported feeling embarrassment or amusement during the DFA was analyzed.  Specifically, Keltner analyzed the facial expressions and bodily changes of participants in the 15-second rest period following each display of an emotional expression.  Compared to participants who felt amused, embarrassed participants…

  • looked down faster, spent a longer period of time looking down, and frequently changed their gaze location.
  • showed more “smile controls” or attempts to conceal a smile or the zygomatic AU change.
  • more lip presses (AU 24)
  • turning head away from camera and more downward head movements
  • more face touches

Figure 1 shows the facial changes that occurred overtime during the embarrassment experience.  The duration of each facial change is from the left edge of the photograph to the end of the arrow.  Thus, downward gaze is the facial change that last the longest, followed by head away.  It is interesting to note that the embarrassment facial expression comprises several facial changes over a period of six seconds.

 

Figure 1
Facial Expression Change Over Time and Average Length of Each Change (Keltner, 1995)
A plotted point graph, with images of facial expressions as the plot points. They are plotted on time in seconds (x axis), and facial expression (y axis).

Reproduced from D. Keltner, 1995, Signs of appeasement: Evidence for the distinct displays of embarrassment, amusement, and shame. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology68(3),p. 445 (https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.68.3.441) Copyright 1995 by the American Psychological Association.

 

Some theorists believe the embarrassment facial expression serves an adaptive purpose – to show appeasement to others (Keltner, 1995; Castelfranchi & Poggi, 1990).  The appeasement hypothesis states that when an individual violates a social norm, this elicits anger in group members.  By displaying the embarrassment facial expression after violating a norm, people acknowledge that they are aware of their violation and exhibit submission to maintain the social order.  Yet, Keltner acknowledged the DFA task is one unique situation that elicited embarrassment and that some of the touching displays could be due to the physiological attachments and not really to embarrassment.

In a follow-up study Keltner (1995) had participants watch a videotape and free list the emotion expressed by the individual in the tape.  Participants rated the individuals showing embarrassment as sad, followed by nervous.  Participants did not specifically state the term embarrassment (this relates to the Widen and Russell (2011) study below).

In another study, Keltner (1995) explored whether shame and embarrassment facial expressions were unique.  In this study, participants watched video recordings of 12– to 13-year-old Caucasian and African American males completing an IQ test.  Clips of the IQ test showing facial expressions of amusement, enjoyment, anger, disgust, and shame and guilt were identified using Ekman and Friesen’s (1978) FACS.  After watching each clip, participants selected an emotion term (amusement, enjoyment, anger, disgust, and shame and guilt) that described the males’ facial expressions.

Findings showed that participants selected embarrassed labels for the embarrassed expressions displayed by the adolescent males and picked the shame label for males expressing shame. Interestingly, participants were more accurate in labeling embarrassment and shame when they were evaluating expressions of African-American boys compared to Caucasian boys.

Figure 2
Proportion of Sample Selecting Emotion Label of Embarrassed and Shameful Adolescent Males

Two bar graphs. One is labeled - Embarrassed Adolescent Male (left), the other - Shameful Adolescent Male (right). Each graph has two sets of two bars. each set is labeled for an emotion it is being graphed for, and has a bar for african american, and a bar for caucasian. The y axis measures the proportion of sample selecting emotion label.
Embarrassed Adolescent Male: Embarrassment; African American – 68, Embarrassment; Caucasian – 53, Shame; African American – 10, Shame; Caucasian – 16.

Shameful Adolescent Male: Shame; African American – 82, Shame; Caucasian – 52, Disgust; African American – 5, Disgust; Caucasian – 20.

Adapted from D. Keltner, 1995, Signs of appeasement: Evidence for the distinct displays of embarrassment, amusement, and shame. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(3),p. 452 (https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.68.3.441) Copyright 1995 by the American Psychological Association.

 

In Keltner and Buswell (1996; the classic study we discussed above), they sought to identify the facial expressions associated with embarrassment, shame, and guilt. Participants were shown 14 facial expressions for five seconds. For each of the 14 emotional expressions, they viewed 2 photos of the same female poser and 2 photos of the same male poser. After viewing each photo, they were presented with a list of 14 emotion labels and instructed to select the emotion that was the best match for previously viewed facial expression. They had to select the emotion label within 10 seconds. The 14 emotion labels were:

  • Amusement
  • Anger
  • Awe
  • (self)-contempt
  • Disgust
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Happiness
  • Pain
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Surprise
  • Sympathy
  • No Emotion

 

Below, are the photos that the researchers believed corresponded to embarrassment, shame, and sadness.

 

Table
Keltner and Buswell’s (1996) Facial Expressions of Embarrassment, Shame, and Sadness

A table that shows an emotion, an image example of that emotion, action units, and described actions for the emotion.
Emotion Image Example Action Units Description
Embarrassment Eyelids narrowed, controlled smile, head turned and down (not scores with FACS: hand touches face) 7 + 12 + 15 + 52 + 54 + 64 Eyelids narrowed, controlled smile, head turned and down (not scores with FACS: hand touches face)
Shame Head down, eyes down 54 + 64 Head down, eyes down
Sadness Brows knitted, eyes slightly tightened, lip corners depressed, lower lip raised 1 + 4 + 6 + 15 + 17 Brows knitted, eyes slightly tightened, lip corners depressed, lower lip raised

Adapted from D. Keltner and D.T. Cordaro, 2017, Understanding multimodal emotional expressions: Recent advances in basic emotion theory. The science of facial expression, p. 59-61. Copyright 2017 by Oxford University.

 

Figure 4 shows the percentage of participants who selected each emotion when the facial expression displayed was embarrassment.  For both female and male posers, a majority of participants selected embarrassment (51% when viewing female posers; 56% when viewing male posers). Not shown in the figure, only 7% of the sample judged the embarrassment photos to be shame.

 

Figure 4
Percentage of participants who selected each emotion for embarrassment expression

Facial Expression is Embarrassment. Two bar graphs. One for male posers, one for female posers. Each graph has 3 bars for: shame, guilt, sadness. Both graphs are measured by % of posers selected each emotion, starting at 0, incrementing by 20 each interval, to a max of 60.
Female Posers: Shame – 56, Guilt – 25, Sadness – 0.
Male Posers: Shame – 47, Guilt – 20, Sadness – 18

 

Eyelids narrowed, controlled smile, head turned and down (not scores with FACS: hand touches face)

Note. Researchers considered 7.2% as above chance; So, when less than 7.2% of sample selected label, label not included in data. Adapted from D., Keltner, & B.N. Buswell, 1996, Evidence for the distinctness of embarrassment, shame, and guilt: A study of recalled antecedents and facial expressions of emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 10(2), p. 166, (https://doi.org/10.1080/026999396380312). Copyright 1996 Psychology Press. Photo reproduced from D. Keltner and D.T. Cordaro, 2017, Understanding multimodal emotional expressions: Recent advances in basic emotion theory. The science of facial expression, p. 59-61. Copyright 2017 by Oxford University.

 

Figure 5 below shows the percentage of participants who selected each emotion when the facial expression displayed was shame. A majority of participants selected shame for the female posers (56%) and almost a majority for male posers (47%). Not shown in the figure, only 3.4% of the sample judged the shame photos to be embarrassment. Although the facial expressions for shame and embarrassment appear to be unique, it is important to note that in this study recognition rates for negative basic emotions were higher, as shown in Table 4. For instance, when shown a disgust photo, recognition rates were 88.9% and 85.9% for female and male posers (Figure 5).

 

Figure 5
Percentage of participants who selected each emotion for shame expression

Facial Expression is Shame. Two bar graphs. One for male posers, one for female posers. Each graph has 3 bars for: shame, guilt, sadness. Both graphs are measured by % of posers selected each emotion, starting at 0, incrementing by 20 each interval, to a max of 60.
Female Posers: Shame – 56, Guilt – 25, Sadness – 0.
Male Posers: Shame – 47, Guilt – 20, Sadness – 18.
Head down, eyes down

 

Table 4
Percentage of participants who selected each emotion for basic emotions expression (Keltner & Buswell, 1996

A table showing a basic emotion, and percentages of female and male posers responding differently
“Basic” Emotion Female Posers Male Posers
Anger Anger: 66.7

Disgust: 17.2

Contempt: 11.1

Anger: 87.3

Contempt: 07.7

Contempt Disgust: 66.5

Contempt: 17.5

Disgust: 45.6

Contempt: 32.5

Disgust Disgust: 88.9 Disgust: 85.9
Fear Fear: 83.2 Fear: 91.9
Happiness Happiness: 89.7 Happiness: 74.8
Sadness Sadness: 84.0 Amusement: 15.6

Sadness: 78.6

Surprise Surprise: 72.2

Fear: 12.5

Awe: 11.8

Surprise: 84.4

Awe: 12.2

Note. Researchers considered 7.2% as above chance; So, when less than 7.2% of sample selected label, label not included in data. Adapted from D., Keltner, & B.N. Buswell, 1996, Evidence for the distinctness of embarrassment, shame, and guilt: A study of recalled antecedents and facial expressions of emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 10(2), p. 166, (https://doi.org/10.1080/026999396380312). Copyright 1996 Psychology Press.

 

To test for a unique guilt facial expression, researchers displayed facial expressions of self-contempt, sympathy, and pain. Keltner and colleagues believed these three facial expressions could represent guilt. Why? Well self-contempt could be similar to anger toward the self for committing a violation. After harming another person, we may feel sympathy toward that person (i.e., care, concern, feel bad for them). Finally, pain is a subjective feeling often reported with guilt and shame experiences (Tangney et al., 1996).

 

Figure 6
Keltner and Buswell’s Facial Expressions Related to Guilt

a table showing an emotion, an image example of that emotion, action units, and a description of the facial expression.
Emotion Image Example Action Units Description
Self-Contempt Unilateral lip corner tightening, head down, gaze down 14 + 54 + 64 Unilateral lip corner tightening, head down, gaze down
Sympathy Inner eyebrow raised, lower lip raised, lips pressed together, head slightly forward 1 + 17 + 24 + 57 Inner eyebrow raised, lower lip raised, lips pressed together, head slightly forward
Pain Eyes tightly closed, nose wrinkled, brows furrowed, lips tight, pressed together, and slightly puckered 4 + 6 + 7 + 9 + 17 + 18 + 23 + 24 Eyes tightly closed, nose wrinkled, brows furrowed, lips tight, pressed together, and slightly puckered

Adapted from D. Keltner and D.T. Cordaro, 2017, Understanding multimodal emotional expressions: Recent advances in basic emotion theory. The science of facial expression, p. 59-61. Copyright 2017 by Oxford University.

As can be seen in Figure 7, most participants reported self-contempt facial expressions to be shame.

 

Facial Expression is Self-contempt. Two bar graphs. One for male posers, one for female posers. Each graph has 3 bars for: shame, guilt, sadness. Both graphs are measured by % of posers selected each emotion, starting at 0, incrementing by 10 each interval, to a max of 50.
Female Posers: Shame – 45, Guilt – 22, Sadness – 15.
Male Posers: Shame – 35, Guilt – 9, Sadness – 22.

Figure 7
Percentage of participants who selected each emotion for self-contempt expression

Note. Researchers considered 7.2% as above chance; So, when less than 7.2% of sample selected label, label not included in data. Adapted from D., Keltner, & B.N. Buswell, 1996, Evidence for the distinctness of embarrassment, shame, and guilt: A study of recalled antecedents and facial expressions of emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 10(2), p. 166, (https://doi.org/10.1080/026999396380312). Copyright 1996 Psychology Press. Photo reproduced from D. Keltner and D.T. Cordaro, 2017, Understanding multimodal emotional expressions: Recent advances in basic emotion theory. The science of facial expression, p. 59-61. Copyright 2017 by Oxford University.

For the sympathy facial expression (Figure 8), the findings differed according to the gender of the poser. For female posers, 1/3 participants labeled the expression sympathy and another 1/3 selected no emotion. For male posers, 43% selected sympathy, while 36% selected sadness. Guilt was not selected at beyond chance levels.

 

Facial Expression is Sympathy. Two bar graphs. One for male posers, one for female posers. Each graph has 4 bars for: sympathy, no emotion, guilt, and sadness. Both graphs are measured by % of posers selected each emotion, starting at 0, incrementing by 10 each interval, to a max of 50.
Female Posers: Sympathy – 33, No emotion – 32, Guilt – 10, Sadness – 8.
Male Posers: Sympathy – 43, No Emotion – 0, Guilt – 0, Sadness – 36.

Figure 8
Percentage of participants who selected each emotion for sympathy expression

Note. Researchers considered 7.2% as above chance; So, when less than 7.2% of sample selected label, label not included in data. Adapted from D., Keltner, & B.N. Buswell, 1996, Evidence for the distinctness of embarrassment, shame, and guilt: A study of recalled antecedents and facial expressions of emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 10(2), p. 166, (https://doi.org/10.1080/026999396380312). Copyright 1996 Psychology Press. Photo reproduced from D. Keltner and D.T. Cordaro, 2017, Understanding multimodal emotional expressions: Recent advances in basic emotion theory. The science of facial expression, p. 59-61. Copyright 2017 by Oxford University.

 

Facial Expression is Sympathy. Two bar graphs. One for male posers, one for female posers. Each graph has 4 bars for: pain, disgust, anger, contempt. Both graphs are measured by % of posers selected each emotion, starting at 0, incrementing by 10 each interval, to a max of 60.
Female Posers: Pain – 45, Disgust – 16, Anger – 14, Contempt – 10.
Male Posers: Pain – 52, Disgust – 20, Anger – 0, Contempt – 0.

Figure 9
Percentage of participants who selected each emotion for pain expression

Note. Researchers considered 7.2% as above chance; So, when less than 7.2% of sample selected label, label not included in data. Adapted from D., Keltner, & B.N. Buswell, 1996, Evidence for the distinctness of embarrassment, shame, and guilt: A study of recalled antecedents and facial expressions of emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 10(2), p. 166, (https://doi.org/10.1080/026999396380312). Copyright 1996 Psychology Press. Photo reproduced from D. Keltner and D.T. Cordaro, 2017, Understanding multimodal emotional expressions: Recent advances in basic emotion theory. The science of facial expression, p. 59-61. Copyright 2017 by Oxford University.

 

Taken together these findings suggest that currently we do not have evidence for a unique facial expression of guilt. Further, these findings suggest that expressions of self-contempt convey the emotion of shame, instead of guilt. Finally, although shame and embarrassment are uniquely recognized, the recognition rates are lower than for other basic emotions caused by an external eliciting event.
In another study, Widen, Russell and colleagues (2011, yes, James Russell of the circumplex model), investigated whether participants could identify facial expressions of embarrassment, shame, contempt, and compassion. Participants were shown 10 photographs of emotional expressions. Six of these photos were of the basic emotions happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust, first identified by Ekman and Friesen (1971). The facial expressions of contempt, shame, embarrassment, and compassion were identified by Haidt and Keltner (1999) using the FACS (Ekman & Friesen, 1978).

 

Figure 10
Facial Expression Photos from Haidt and Keltner (1999)
An image of a persons facial expression for embarrassment, and shame.
Adapted from J. Haidt and D. Keltner, 1999, Culture and facial expression: Open-ended methods find more expressions and a gradient of recognition. Cognition & Emotion, 13(3), p. 234 (https://doi.org/10.1080/026999399379267) Copyright 1999 Psychology Press.

 

All participants first identified the emotions using free call and then were shown the expressions again and given a list of emotional labels from which to choose. Participants’ free responses were coded into categories of emotion. For instance, the terms ashamed, dejected, guilty, and shameful were placed in the shame category and terms embarrassed, bashful, and shy were placed in the embarrassment category.
Figure 11 shows that for the shame and embarrassment facial expressions, participants got more correct when they completed the forced choice method versus the free label method. It is important to note that recognition rates when free labelling the original six basic emotions ranged from . 41 (for disgust) to .94 (for happiness).

Figure 11
Proportion of Correct Forced Choice and Free Labelled Responses for Shame and Embarrassment Facial Expressions

Two sets of bars graphed. One for shame, one for Embarrassment. The y axis measures proportion correct for facial expression in the photo. Both of the sets have a bar for forced choice (blue), and a bar for free Labelling (orange).
Shame; Forced Choice – 0.66, Shame; Free Labelling – 0.32

Embarrassment; Forced Choice – 0.48, Embarassment; Free Labelling – 0.31

 

Adapted from S.C. Widen, A.M. Christy, K. Hewett, and J.A. Russell, 2011, Do proposed facial expressions of contempt, shame, embarrassment, and compassion communicate the predicted emotion?. Cognition & Emotion, 25(5), p. 901. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2010.508270 Copyright 2010 Psychology Press.

 

Below, Figure 12 shows that for the facial expression embarrassment, most participants free labeled embarrassment, followed by happy, sad, and cognition (although the remaining 21% of the responses were placed in other emotion categories). Most participants free labeled the shame expression as sadness, followed by shame and then cognition. These findings might suggest that research has not yet identified a unique facial expression of shame or embarrassment. In addition, the shame expression free recall responses incorporated guilt, this making it harder to determine whether guilt and shame are distinct emotions.

Figure 12
Proportion in of Participants Responses for Shame and Guilt Expressions in Free Labeling Session

A bar graph. A bar for shame, and a bar for embarrassment are graphed. The y axis measures the proportion participants responses. Each bar has 4 sections labeled within them: Correct, Happy, Sad, Cognition.
Shame; Correct – 0.32, Shame; Happy – 0, Shame; Sad – 0.42, Shame; Cognition – 0.05

Embarrassment; Correct – 0.31, Embarrassment; Happy – 0.24, Embarrassment; Sad – 0.23, Embarrassment; Cognition – 0.01

Note. Cognition category includes free labeled responses of “confused, curious, debating, doubtful, perplexed, skeptical, suspicious, uncertain, and unsure” (Widen et al., 2011, p. 900). Adapted from S.C. Widen, A.M. Christy, K. Hewett, and J.A. Russell, 2011, Do proposed facial expressions of contempt, shame, embarrassment, and compassion communicate the predicted emotion?. Cognition & Emotion, 25(5), p.903. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2010.508270 Copyright 2010 Psychology Press.

 

Overall these studies provide some initial evidence of embarrassment facial changes, including averting gaze, shifting gaze, head down, and touching the face. More recent evidence by Widen et al. (2011) suggests the recognition rates for shame and embarrassment might be inflated due to the forced choice method used in past research. In fact, Russell found participants did not do a great job at correctly free labeling shame and embarrassment. So, this might suggest that shame and embarrassment are not basic emotions. This could also mean that because the embarrassment facial expressions change over a short period of time, identifying the emotion in still photos could be more difficult. Unfortunately, we do not have much evidence on cross-cultural differences in facial expressions. Some of this new research will be discussed in the pride section here.

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Psychology of Human Emotion. by Michelle Yarwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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