Chapter 11: Negative Self-Conscious Emotions

Distinct Emotion Theory – Eliciting Events

In this section, we will cover two perspectives of the negatively-valenced self-conscious emotions, which include shame, guilt, and embarrassment.  The distinct emotions perspective (Tangney, Keltner) view shame, guilt, and embarrassment as three separate and distinct categories of emotion.  Conversely, Single-Emotion Theory (Sabini & Silver, 1997; Sabini et al., 2001) view shame and guilt as different intensities of the same distinct emotion.  Single-Emotion Theory does not view guilt as an emotion at all!  As we progress through scientific evidence for both theories, think about which theory you believe to be correct!


Eliciting Events

Social conventional and moral violations differentiate negative self-conscious emotions. A social conventional violation occurs when we exhibit a small failure that violates social codes – such as social faux pas.  Some examples include tripping, appearance malfunctions, and bodily noises.  Moral violations occur when we exhibit a behavior that violates a moral code. For example, lying and cheating.


According to the distinct emotion view, embarrassment occurs when we perceive that the self committed a social conventional violation.  Arguments exist over whether other people must be physically present for us to experience.  In addition, some suggest that embarrassment could be elicited by a positive event during which other people’s attention is focused on the self – such as receiving an award in front of people.


Distinct theorists view shame and guilt as both caused by moral violations.  In fact, for both shame and guilt experienced, participants reported both were caused by moral violations (Tangney et al., 1996), while embarrassment was less serious and more accidental.  Theorists believe shame and guilt may be felt in a private or public setting.  After recalling shame, guilt, and embarrassment memories, researchers found that shame and guilt were equally like to occur with people around and when alone (Tangney et al., 1996). Specifically, 10.4% of guilt and 18.2% of shame experiences were felt alone, while only 2.2% of embarrassment occurred alone. In addition, embarrassment was felt in the presence of more people compared to shame. Participants’ ratings confirmed the public setting – embarrassing events occurred when people were looking at the self, whereas this was not the case for shame and guilt (Tangney et al., 1996).  Overall these findings show that all three emotions tend to occur in a public format.  Coding of the participants’ descriptions of the events showed that shame and guilt tended to be felt when surrounded by familiar and more intimate individuals, whereas embarrassment was felt more when surrounded by acquaintances or strangers.


A table showing a self-conscious emotion, an eliciting event, and examples.
Self-Conscious Emotion Eliciting Event Examples
Embarrassment Social Conventional Violation

Accidental Social Faux Pas

People looking at the self

Presence of Acquaintances/Strangers

Loss of control over body, shortcoming in physical appearance, or cognitive ability
Guilt Moral Violation

Presence of Close Others

Lying, cheating, stealing, not helping others
Shame Moral Violation

Social Conventional Violation

Presence of Close Other

Lying, poor performance, embarrassment, socially inappropriate behaviors


Tangney (1992) asked undergraduate students to write separate stories about times they felt shame and guilt.  Table 2 shows the common eliciting events of shame and guilt.  In general, participants reported that both shame and guilt were caused by a variety of moral violations (e.g., lying, cheating, stealing).  But more of the guilt scenarios recalled described lying, cheating, stealing, infidelity, not helping others, and breaking a diet. More of the shame scenarios were caused by personal failures, embarrassment, and socially inappropriate behavior, and hurting someone emotionally. These findings suggest that guilt is solely caused by a moral violation, but that shame overlaps with embarrassment in being caused by social conventional violations too.

Table 2
Eliciting Events Coded in Participants’ Recall of Guilt and Shame Events (Tangney, 1992)

A table that shows content, guilt situations, shame situations, and z
Content Guilt Situations Shame Situations z
Lying 21.0% 11.0% -4.08***
Cheating 22.7% 6.4% -6.12***
Stealing 19.3% 6.0% -5.12***
Infidelity 4.9% 2.1% -2.05**
Not helping others 3.7% 1.4% -1.86*
Breaking a diet 2.9% 0.7% -2.04**
Failure (work, school, sports, etc.) 4.6% 19.5% -3.94***
Embarrassment 0.3% 8.9% -4.04***
Socially inappropriate behavior or dress 0.0% 5.7% -3.30***
Sex 0.0% 3.2% -2.52**
Doing something immoral or wrong (unspecified) 2.3% 7.1% -2.19**
Hurting someone emotionally 8.9% 17.4% -1.88*
Crime (Unspecified) 2.6% 2.5% -0.47
Hurting someone physically 1.4% 2.8% -0.80
Disobeying Parents 1.4% 2.1% -0.30
Damaging Objects 2.0% 1.8% -0.56
Murder 2.0% 1.4% -0.89

Reproduced from J.P. Tangney, 1992, Situational determinants of shame and guilt in young adulthood, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18(2), p. 204. ( Copyright 1992 by Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Keltner and Buswell (1996) provide more information on the differences between shame and guilt.  In their study, participants wrote down events that had caused them to feel embarrassment, shame, and guilt. Then, researchers coded these events.  Coding revealed some themes that differentiated the three emotions.  But Keltner and Buswell (1996) also found that the eliciting events for shame and guilt overlapped.  For example, people described “failing of duties” as causing both shame and guilt.

In conclusion, we might not want to rely on eliciting events as the best way to differentiate these three emotions.  One limitations of these studies is that the researchers are assuming everyday children and adult have clear, separate definitions of shame and guilt.  But, maybe these two words simply describe different aspects of the same emotion?


Sabini et al. (2000) explored the eliciting events of embarrassment.  Remember, Sabini and Silver view embarrassment and shame as the same emotion.  The goal of the study was to determine whether Social Evaluation Theory or Dramaturgic Theory best explained embarrassment.  Both of these theories essentially viewed sociologist Gottman’s Dramaturgy Theory (1959, 1967) in different ways.  Dramaturgy Theory views people as actors playing out different roles on a stage.   To Gottman, the stage represents the social situation the actor experiences.  Thus, similar to social psychologists, Gottman viewed the situation, including interactions between actors, as an important influence on behavior.  Social Evaluation Theory (Modigliani 1968, 1971) views the cause of embarrassment as a temporary drop in self-esteem.  Proponents of this theory would state that to experience embarrassment one of the following must occur: 1) a negative event in which we temporarily view ourselves in an unfavorable way or 2) we think other people around us view us in a negative way.  Dramaturgic Theory is a different interpretation – held by Sabini, Silver and colleagues (Parrott et al., 1988; Silver et al., 1987).  This theory refutes the idea that embarrassment is caused by a drop in self-esteem or when we think other people view us negatively.  The only requirement for embarrassment is a predicted or present failure in social performance. Finally, Zajonc’s (1965) Mere Presence theory states that the presence of other people impacts arousals and emotions.  Thus, this theory would state that when other people are present and focus on the self, that causes embarrassment.


In this study, participants rated the extent to which they would feel embarrassed (1 = not at all embarrassment; 7 = extremely embarrassed) in 40 different scenarios.  From these ratings, Sabini et al. (2000) found that eliciting events for embarrassment fell into three groups: Faux Pas, Centre of Attention, and Sticky Situations.

Table 3
Eliciting Events of Embarrassment According to Each Theory (Sabini et al., 2000)

A table showing an eliciting event, a supporting theory, what the embarrassment is caused by, and an example
Eliciting Event Theory That Supports Embarrassment caused by… Example
Faux Pas Social Evaluation Theory Small Social Error The first day of class, realizing you are in the wrong class and you get up to leave.
Sticky Situations Dramaturgic Theory Asking someone to complete a task that will highlight their failure in performance (or predicting you will have to do so) You have to talk to an employee you supervise about your suspicion they are stealing from the petty cash box.
Centre of Attention Mere Presence Focus is on one’s self The professor asks you to read your creative writing assignment out loud to the class.

Scenarios reproduced from J. Sabini, M. Siepmann, J. Stein, and M. Meyerowitz, 2000, Who is embarrassed by what?, Cognition & Emotion, 14(2), pp. 236-240. ( Copyright 2000 by Psychology Press.


People reported the most embarrassment for faux pas events, followed by sticky situations, and the least embarrassment for centre of attention. These findings suggest that all three theories make accurate predictions about the causes of embarrassment. But, the events that make people feel the most embarrassment are social faux pas – those events in which we exhibit a negative behavior that drops our self-esteem. Thus, Social Evaluative Theory explains the most embarrassing scenarios. But, the other theories are correct too in that a drop in self-esteem is not a prerequisite to embarrassment.Females reported more embarrassment on the faux pas scale compared to men. Researchers also investigated links between personality and the embarrassing events. Neuroticism was positively correlated with embarrassment in all three events. This suggests that as Neuroticism increases, the extent to which people reported embarrassment for the three events increased. Conversely, as Extraversion increases people reported less embarrassment in only the faux pas event. Finally, trait self-esteem was negatively correlated with embarrassment in faux pas events, but not the other two events.


Test Your Knowledge of Sabini et al.’s (2000) Eliciting Events

Match the following scenarios to Sabini et al.’s (2000) types of embarrassment.

Note. The scenarios were reproduced from J. Sabini, M Siepmann, J. Stein, and M. Meyerowitz 2000,Wwho is embarrassed by what? Cognitions and Emotion, 14(2),pp. 236-240.
( Copyright 2000 by Psychology Press.


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