Feeling Guilty by Association? Don't, New Study Says

January 19, 2009 - News Release

Still fretting about how your friend embarrassed you at the office Christmas party? Relax. It's not about you. Or at least not in the way you might think, according to a new study by University of Guelph researchers.

"We all tend to give ourselves starring roles in our own epic dramas, when the reality is that people are focused on what your friend has done, not on you," said psychology professor Ian Newby-Clark. "The fact that you think you're being judged negatively because of the behaviour of others probably says more about you than it does about what actually happened."

In a paper published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Newby-Clark and Jennifer Fortune, a former U of G graduate student, say people appear to be overly sensitive to how the actions of others might affect their own status. They erroneously believe their social standing suffers when people with whom they're associated behave badly.

The study builds on several years of work inspired by real events when Newby-Clark was pondering an uncomfortable situation brought on by a friend's alcohol-fuelled hijinks at a party.

"We've all been in that kind of situation where the person beside us has done something inappropriate and we worry it will reflect badly upon us," he said. "It doesn't seem to be true."

He and Fortune recruited more than 800 volunteers for six studies into roles as "associates," "offenders" and "observers." Hypothetical transgressions ranged from nose-picking and vomiting on a party hostess to admissions of academic misconduct.

Associates were asked to anticipate how others would react to them based on their relationship with the offender. The researchers found that people erroneously anticipated a stronger negative reaction when they were introduced as a "friend" of an offender, and the effect was more keenly observed when they not only genuinely felt close to the offender but were also seen to be close (sitting next to the person, for example).

Newby-Clark and Fortune found that associates' feelings of embarrassment were reduced if they could be induced to view their situation from the perspective of an impartial observer.

"To some extent, it doesn't matter how close you're feeling to the other person, and it doesn't matter what you think of what your friend has done," said Newby-Clark. "It's what you think other people will think of it. That's what really matters."

So the next time you're afraid of being blacklisted when a friend runs afoul of social convention, heed Newby-Clark's tried-but-true advice backed up by scientific data: try looking at your situation from a different point of view.

"Remember that you are not the disgraced hero of a grand tragedy but merely bystander No. 3 in someone else's temporary farce."

Prof. Ian Newby-Clark
519 824-4120, Ext. 53517

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, Ext. 53338, lhunt@uoguelph.ca, or Barry Gunn, Ext. 56982, bagunn@uoguelph.ca

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