Going for a fist bump when the other person goes for a hand shake. Forgetting someone’s name. Having nothing to talk about on a first date. Everybody has experienced these awkward moments at some point. But what’s going on inside the brain when they happen? Why do we all feel awkwardness? And does it actually benefit us?
What is awkwardness?
- Awkward situations make us feel uncomfortable and where possible, we try and avoid them.
- The feeling of awkwardness occurs when somebody does something that deviates from a social norm in a specific way.
- However it goes deeper than that. There is no social norm that governs having something to talk about on a first date but when you don’t, you still feel awkward.
- This means feeling awkward is very particular to certain situations which aren’t always linked to social norms.
Why do we experience awkwardness?
Feeling embarrassed in awkward situations is thought to aid social cohesion. Understanding and avoiding these situations shows other people you are socially apt and as very social creatures, this is important for humans. It is therefore no coincidence that brains that react badly to awkward situations have become present in human social psychology.
Human social psychology is based on how we act and interact with others. As feeling embarrassed increases trust and cohesion, brains that react to awkwardness in this way flourish.
Awkwardness in the brain
Now we know why people get awkward, it’s time to understand what happens in the brain. What areas does it stimulate? You may be surprised by what the answer is…
The part of the brain that awkwardness is processed in is the secondary somatosensory cortex. This might not mean a lot to some of you at first, but that part of brain is connected to the sensation of feeling pain. The same part of the brain that activates when you break a bone, also activates when you feel awkward.
For more evidence that being awkward activates the same regions as physical pain, here are some examples of the similarities between and sympathetic nervous systems fight or flight response and a response to awkwardness:
Breathing and heart rate
- Fight or flight- breathing increases for more oxygen to reach cells to either run or fight. Heart rate increases to pump increased oxygen to muscle cells.
- Awkward situations- breathing and heart rate increases during prolonged periods of awkwardness.
- Fight or flight- digestion shuts down to allow extra blood and energy to reach muscles; digestion is not a priority in that situation.
- Awkward situations- digestion shuts down in the same way, causing butterflies in the pit of the stomach.
Cold hands and feet
- Fight or flight- blood leaves extremities to prioritise vital organs for an attack.
- Awkward situations- in extreme cases, the hands may start to feel cold as the same process happens when you feel awkward.
As you can see, feeling awkward and these physical responses are very similar and it’s no coincidence. It seems these situations have a genuine physical effect on us.
So it seems being awkward does have its uses… at least throughout our evolution in social psychology. Showing signs of awkwardness helped strengthen our social bonds and interactions. However in our modern world, it can be a little embarrassing and something we wish didn’t happen.
Many thanks for taking the time to read my post. I hope you learned something,
Stevens, M. (Vsauce). (2015, March 20). The Science of Awkwardness. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o268qbb_0BM