Of all the gestures people make when flooded with embarrassment, burying one's face in the hands may be the most common. It’s as if there’s an instinctive need to hide; and now, a new study confirms that irresistible desire to “save face” when mortified.

In the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers in Toronto examined the ways in which we deal with embarrassment. With help from 200 college students from Hong Kong, they found that embarrassment led to a significant desire to symbolically hide the face.

In one experiment, they asked participants to recount either an embarrassing experience or a typical school day, then they asked them to rate photos of people wearing various styles of sunglasses and which ones they would buy. Those who wrote about embarrassment chose large, dark sunglasses compared to the others.

In a second experiment, new participants were again asked to recount either an embarrassing experience or a typical school day. The participants were then asked what they‘d buy from a list of products, running the gamut from restorative face creams and sunglasses to clothing and accessories. The embarrassed subjects showed significantly more interest in face creams.

Lastly, they compared which participants would prefer doing something social or solitary. The subjects who used face creams to cope with embarrassment were more likely to choose social activities. But those who chose to cover their face with sunglasses chose to be nonsocial.

So is the cure to embarrassment as simple as a jar of face cream? The study certainly suggests that's it more effective than hiding behind sunglasses … or behind hands, in a pinch.

“Although symbolically repairing one’s face eliminates aversive feelings of embarrassment and restores one’s willingness to engage in social activities,” the authors conclude, “symbolically hiding one’s face has little impact.”

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