In the three-year 125,000 pounds study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, researchers at St Andrews University will examine the group dimensions of embarrassment, determining whether or not the company we're in makes us feel more flustered.
Participants will be asked to put themselves in embarrassing situations in front of different groups as researchers measure their reactions.
Dr Anjua Eller, of the university's school of psychology, who is leading the study, said empathy, anxiety, shame, guilt and other emotions had been analysed on a group level, but not embarrassment.
"The emotion of embarrassment is only felt in the presence of and because of an audience, even if that audience is imagined. The nature of the audience has only scarcely been investigated so far, but it is clearly vital. Social identity theory holds that when people act as group members, their world view changes," The Scotsman quoted Anjua, as saying.
Dr Eller said the project would examine whether people feel empathic embarrassment on behalf of another person who has made a faux pas, even if the person came from outwith their group.
She said: "We will investigate what happens when the embarrassed person is not a member of the group - particularly if they have a high status.
"In this case, people might actually show joy at another's misfortune rather than empathy.
"If you trip over in the street you feel very embarrassed, of course. People in your own group who witness this, your friends or those close to you, feel empathic embarrassment and try to alleviate the situation and make you feel better," she added.
Groups being studied include students of different universities, as well as people of different nationalities and sports teams.
Dr Eller said the project might provide practical insights into why some people do not intervene when confronted with an emergency such as a woman being attacked by a man in the street.
Researchers will also analyze whether fear of embarrassment could cause people to avoid contact with those from different groups and cultures.