We Are Sorry, They Don’t Care: Misinterpretation of Facial Embarrassment Displays in Arab–White Intergroup Contexts

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Abstract

Embarrassment displays show others that one is aware of one’s own misbehavior and willing to make up for it. The facial actions of embarrassment, however, are partly similar to those of disinterest, which has an opposite function, signaling that one is not concerned about one’s self in relation to others. In the context of negative intergroup relations, embarrassment displays of outgroup members may therefore be misinterpreted as disinterest. In the present research, the authors predicted that Whites would perceive Arab expressions of embarrassment more as disinterest, but embarrassment displays of Whites more as embarrassment. Aggregated Study 1 (N = 1,154) confirms this hypothesis showing that White participants perceived more intense embarrassment in Whites than in Arabs and more intense disinterest in Arabs than in Whites. Studies 2 (n = 193) and 3 (n = 260) include methodological improvements and either largely or fully replicated our findings. Based on this evidence in an Arab–White context, the authors conclude that the affiliative function of embarrassment perception is dependent on the nature of the group context. Finally, they discuss the generalizability of this intergroup emotion bias in which emotional expressions may be perceived as the opposite of what they are intended to display.

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