The Science Behind Your Secondhand Embarrassment


Scientists have figured out why watching Michael Scott’s most awkward moments on The Office can make you squirm. Previously, little research had been conducted on “vicarious embarrassment,” but a new study found that watching other people make fools of themselves triggers the part of the brain where we process pain.

In the study by British and German researchers, subjects were presented with descriptions of a series of uncomfortable everyday situations, including someone slipping in mud, leaving their fly open, and burping in a fancy restaurant. Whether the character was aware that they had embarrassed themselves or totally oblivious, the situation caused the regions of the brain related to pain — the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula — to activate. The reaction in the brain was more intense for the subjects who described themselves as very empathetic.

“We were fascinated about how frequently people report their vicarious embarrassment experiences in everyday life and how little empirical research on this topic exists,” said the researchers, according to EurekAlert. “Apparently, there are many occasions where one could experience this vicarious emotion for another currently not feeling anything.” The finding suggests that there are two forms of empathy. When we see someone who knows they’ve behaved inappropriately, we co-experience their feelings. If the person doesn’t realize what they’ve done, we react to our evaluation of the situation.

In the study, the researchers tie this to the enjoyment people get from watching people be humiliated on reality TV. They say:

The appeal of observing others’ plights exploited via television or internet seems to be present regardless of whether the person in focus realizes the mishap (e.g., tripping, as “America’s Next Top Model”) or not (e.g., singing with a bad voice, as a German “Superstar”). Although the effect of laughing about others’ misfortunes has always been picked up in theater plays and comedy movies (e.g., early slapstick comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Laurel & Hardy exactly utilized this type of humor), today’s media increasingly focuses on these everyday situations not only to laugh about but to feel with and for others to the entertainment of millions of spectators.

We may cringe or laugh when Snooki burps or stumbles, but it’s also what gets us emotionally invested in the lives of a half-dozen reality stars who spend their summers boozing and brawling.

Your Flaws Are My Pain: Linking Empathy To Vicarious Embarrassment [PLoS ONE]
Your Flaws Are My Pain [EurekAlert]

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