Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The new psychology of awkward moments

The fascination of socially awkward moments certainly hasn't been missed by comedy writers. Millions of us have cringed our way through series like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office. In contrast, psychology before now has largely neglected to study this fundamental part of social life.

In a new exploratory study, Johsua Clegg proposes a model. Social awkwardness, he posits, is what we feel when the situation threatens our goal of being accepted by others. The feeling prompts us to direct our attention inwards, to monitor our behaviour and attempt to behave in a way that will improve our chances of achieving acceptance. There's been a lot of research before on embarrassment, but that's tended to focus on embarrassed individuals, their feelings and dispositions. This new study is less personal, being more about the situations that reliably trigger everyday feelings of social awkwardness in most people.

Clegg invited 30 undergrad participants (13 men) into a carefully prepared room in groups of three. Each trio sat facing each other on chairs arranged in a triangle. They knew they were being filmed through a two-way mirror. There was also a table with a microphone and five cookies on it.

For the first three minutes, the participants were given no instructions. Then another participant (actually a stooge working for Clegg) arrived with a chair and sat down with them. Three more minutes passed, a researcher appeared and instructed the trio to begin an ice-breaker task (the stooge exited at this point). After three minutes discussion he would ask each of them to introduce each other to the group. Once this was done, the participants left the room and moved to another where they watched back the footage of themselves. They used a slider box, like the kind used in audience research, to indicate how awkward they were feeling during the social interactions on a moment by moment basis.

Clegg noted those moments that participants recorded a dramatic increase in social awkwardness and he cross-checked with the videos to see what was happening at the time. Moments of feeling awkward fell into distinct situational categories, which we can probably all relate to. These included times when participants didn't know what was expected of them or what the social rules were (such as when they first sat down in the room without instructions); when a social norm was broken (e.g. one person interrupted another; someone infringed on another's personal space); a social standard wasn't obtained (e.g. a person stumbled with their speech, there was a long silence); norms around eating were broken (e.g. spilling food from mouth while eating); negative social judgements were made by one person towards another, either explicitly or implicitly (e.g. by pulling a face); when names were forgotten or people weren't recognised; and when social processes were made explicit, such as during the ice-breaker task.

There were also five kinds of moment when social awkwardness plunged. This included: when people were sharing common interests, when one person helped another, when one person was positive about another, and humour. It's notable that a lot of the humour was actually about social awkwardness - joking about it seemed to make it go away.

The study is a tentative first step towards cataloguing when and why people feel socially awkward. It has obvious limitations, foremost that the participants were being filmed and the study is US-centric. But as Clegg argues, it raises all sorts of interesting avenues for future investigation. Perhaps most significant is the similarity of participants'  descriptions of social awkwardness to typical accounts of full-blown social anxiety - they talked about feeling "pressured", "anxious", "nervous" and "crazy". In attempting to understand problematic social anxiety, Clegg said psychology has tended to focus on the individual, on traits like shyness and attention to the self. His new psychology of awkward moments focuses attention on the situations that trigger social discomfort in all of us. Understanding more about everyday social awkwardness, and how people deal with it, could provide new insight into why and how socially anxious people come to feel awkward nearly all of the time.

How often do you experience social awkwardness? Are there any specific social situations that trigger the feeling for you?

  ResearchBlogging.orgClegg, J. (2012). Stranger situations: Examining a self-regulatory model of socially awkward encounters. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 15 (6), 693-712 DOI: 10.1177/1368430212441637

--Further reading--
The new science of "Phew!"
The new psychology of everyday playing cards

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

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