The Experience of Embarrassment in Adults with and without Autism Traits
Embarrassment may have evolved in order to maintain social order, given that embarrassed people typically recognize and regret their social transgression or misbehavior (Miller, 2007). Thus, people who display signs of embarrassment are often better liked and more readily forgiven than those who do not (Keltner & Anderson, 2000). However, despite its importance for social interactions, little is known about the experience of embarrassment in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD; Adler et al., 2015; Hillier & Allinson, 2002; Thiébaut et al. 2016).
The present study explored how adults with ASD traits (ASD-T) may experience or respond to embarrassing scenarios compared to adults without ASD-T. Additionally, gender differences in the experience of embarrassment were considered. Relations between proneness to embarrassment and theory of mind (ToM) and fear of negative evaluation were also assessed.
A total of 72 adults, those with ASD-T (n = 36) and those without, or neurotypical adults (NT; n = 36), participated. The Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS-2-Adult; Constantino, 2012) was used to identify individuals who showed evidence of ASD-T from those who did not. Research has shown that the SRS-2 can be used to distinguish between individuals with ASD traits from those without (Ingersoll et al., 2011). See Table 1 for additional demographic information.
Participants’ proneness to embarrassment was measured using the embarrassment subscale from Sabini et al. (2001). Participants were asked to place themselves within 10 embarrassing scenarios and rate how likely it is that they would experience embarrassment for that event using a 7-point Likert scale (7 = extremely likely). Participants also provided ratings of anger, fear, guilt, regret, and shame in response to each embarrassing scenario. This allowed us to determine (1) how much embarrassment participants felt they would experience in a given scenario, and (2) how much the embarrassing scenarios elicited other emotions.
Participants also completed the Faux Pas Test-Adult (Stone et al.,1998) as a measure of ToM, and the Brief Fear of Negative Evaluation Scale (BFNE; Leary, 1983). Following informed consent, all measures were completed online using a secure survey platform.
A mixed-model ANOVA and appropriate follow-up tests showed that adults with ASD-T rated embarrassing scenarios similar to NT adults in terms of how much embarrassment they thought each would elicit (see Table 2). However, adults with ASD-T reported higher levels of fear, guilt, and shame in response to embarrassing situations than NT adults. Faux-pas detection and detection of false-beliefs were positively related to higher embarrassment ratings in adults with ASD-T, but not in NT adults (see Table 2). Additional results (see Table 2) will be discussed as they relate to BFNE and gender comparisons.
Although adults with and without ASD-T were similar in their ratings of embarrassment, the embarrassing scenarios were more likely to elicit other, particularly negative emotions, in adults with ASD-T. The current results also suggest that ToM may play a greater role in feelings of embarrassment in ASD-T than in NT adults. Understanding how embarrassment is perceived may inform social-emotional programs for adults with ASD.