How embarrassment may protect us from falls

Why do we feel embarrassed when we fall?

Embarrassment may actually serve us and protect us

For a moment, it seems as though all the eyes in the world are focussed on us, just as we are feeling particularly vulnerable, lying on the ground.  Given that almost everyone who has ever walked on the earth will have experienced a fall at some point in their life, why is it so embarrassing to fall in public?  In fact, we can all probably empathise with someone in this position, having been through it ourselves.

That intense emotional feeling of discomfort which appears immediately on hitting the ground can stay with us for days or even weeks.  In the immediate moments of embarrassment we may try to divert attention away from ourselves by laughing and turning the situation into a humorous one.  Or, we may become angry and to place blame, shifting the focus of attention, and the uncomfortable feeling, away from ourselves.

There is a theory that the feeling of embarrassment is protective in some ways.  It gives us feedback, in a similar way to pain, that the situation is bad for us.  This could make us change our behaviour in order to prevent being in the same situation again.  If we fall in a particular place outdoors, do we change our behaviour at that spot? And if so, do we change in order to prevent injury, or is it to prevent embarrassment?

Previous research has shown that people, who do not experience the emotion of embarrassment, tend to partake in more antisocial behaviour.  So embarrassment may actually serve us and protect us from risky behaviour or putting our heads above the parapet.

Blushing is just one of the physical characteristics of embarrassment.  It is an uncontrollable reflex that makes us very visible to those around us.  Charles Darwin found it fascinating and even wrote a whole book chapter about blushing, describing it as

“…the most peculiar and most human of all expressions”

Blushing arises because the blood vessels in our cheeks react differently to blood vessels in other parts of our body when under stress.  So while our hands might go pale and clammy, our cheeks may turn ruddy.  However, this effect wears off with advancing age and is usually limited to younger people.

Some psychologists believe that blushing is a very useful tool to have in social situations.  It provides an immediately recognisable signal that we know the situation is awkward, that we are able to react emotionally to social situations and that we are not prone to antisocial behaviour.

Will understanding these theories make falling in public any less embarrassing?  Probably not.  But maybe we can accept that sometimes embarrassment may be useful, it may help protect against falls and we shouldn’t be embarrassed by being embarrassed!

2 thoughts on “How embarrassment may protect us from falls”

  1. i understand that the natural reaction is to “get back to normal as soon as possible” (MMOCs course ‘the mind is flat’???) . presume thats why the fallen try to get up as quick as possible? case study… a few years ago a BMW wrote itself off against my car (wrote my car off as well). i found myself sitting in my driving seat saying to myself ‘Mmmm…… i ‘m supposed to be going to Cheshire tomorrow… i can straighten my car bonnet, i will be ok” . On finally getting from my car i had difficulty in identifying the BMW and the position of its engine. my car had been shunted backwards five feet.

  2. I’m partially sighted so I hail any bus down in case it is the one I need.I cannot see the number on the bus until it is very close and therefore to late to stop the bus. I don’t get embarassed by this. I don’t like falling, but I don’t get embarassed. My falls are connected to my celebral palsy in my right arm and leg and not age related, yet.
    Thank you for the interesting article regarding embarassment. I think one thing has come out of this course – having falls can knock one’s confidence. It does mine.

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