Have you ever felt a surge of discomfort or pain when you watch someone else make a fool of themselves in public? Maybe you saw a friend spill coffee on their shirt during a presentation, or a stranger trip and fall on the sidewalk. Or maybe you watched a reality TV show where the contestants had to endure awkward or embarrassing situations.
If you have experienced any of these scenarios, you have felt what psychologists call vicarious embarrassment. This is the feeling of cringe we experience when we witness someone else’s awkward or embarrassing situation, even if they are unaware of it.
But why do we feel this way? And what does it say about us?
According to recent research, vicarious embarrassment is closely tied to feelings of empathy and empathy centers in the brain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula. These are the same brain regions that are activated when we feel pain for others, or when we imagine ourselves in their shoes.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It is a fundamental prerequisite for social bonding and cooperation. It also helps us learn from others’ mistakes and avoid repeating them.
However, not everyone feels the same level of vicarious embarrassment or empathy for others. Some factors that influence how we react to others’ flaws and pratfalls include:
– Whether the observed protagonist acted accidentally or intentionally
– Whether the observed protagonist was aware or unaware of their embarrassing situation
– Whether we have a close relationship with the observed protagonist or not
– Whether we have ever behaved in the same way as the observed protagonist or not
– Whether we perceive the situation as fair or unfair
“The present findings establish the empathic process as a fundamental prerequisite for vicarious embarrassment experiences, thus connecting affect and cognition to interpersonal processes,” wrote Sören Krach et al., authors of Your Flaws Are My Pain: Linking Empathy To Vicarious Embarrassment.
Individual differences in trait empathy also correlate with the neural activations and the structural brain differences in regions involved in vicarious embarrassment. In other words, some people are more prone to feel cringe for others than others, and this may be reflected in their brain anatomy and function.
Vicarious embarrassment can also trigger feelings of humor or hilarity, depending on the context and the relationship between the observer and the protagonist. Sometimes, we may laugh at others’ misfortunes, especially if we think they deserve it or if we don’t care about them. Other times, we may laugh with them, as a way of showing support or solidarity.
“As many have experienced, the positive and negative personal reactions to the disgrace of others can flip flop within a short period of time, as more information about the cause and effect of the situation emerges,” wrote Heidi Moawad, MD, author of The Neuroscience of Social Embarrassment.
So next time you feel a pang of cringe when you see someone else fail, remember that it’s a sign of your empathy and your humanity. And maybe try to help them out, or at least give them a smile. After all, it could be you someday.
– The Neuroscience of Social Embarrassment, Neurology live, December 2, 2021
– Your Flaws Are My Pain: Linking Empathy To Vicarious Embarrassment – PLOS, PLOS One, November 30, 2021
– Size DOES Matter: Individual Differences In Empathy And Vicarious Embarrassment Correlate With Grey And White Matter Differences, ResearchGate, November 29, 2021
– Vicarious Embarrassment: Awkward Moments Trigger Pain Centers in the Brain, ABC News, April 13, 2011