Common knowledge, coordination, and the logic of self-conscious emotions

Kyle A. Thomas, Peter DeScioli, and Steven Pinker:

Imagine spilling a plate of food into your lap in front of a crowd. Afterwards, you might fix your gaze on your cell phone to avoid  acknowledging the bumble to onlookers. Similarly, after disappointing your family or colleagues, it can be hard to look them in the eye. Why do people avoid acknowledging faux pas or transgressions that they know an audience already knows about?

Following a transgression, people feel the negative self-conscious emotions of shame, embarrassment, or guilt, and these emotions help them regulate their relationships. A transgressor has displayed ineptitude, which can damage his reputation as a valuable cooperator, or a disregard for someone’s welfare, which can damage his reputation as a trustworthy cooperator. The discomfort caused by the resulting emotions, even when privately felt, motivates a person to manage these threats by drawing his attention to the transgression and motivating him to make amends and avoid similar acts in the future.

The idea that self-conscious emotions regulate relationships also explains why the presence of an audience intensifies feelings of embarrassment, shame, and guilt.

More here.