This is why you cringe when someone else embarrasses themselves

Image: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello/Invision
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When Jennifer Lawrence falls on a flight of stairs in her own home, she gets up, brushes herself off, and goes on her way. But five years ago she didn’t: she face-planted on live television in a gown, walking up steps to Dolby Theatre stage on her way to accept an Oscar, and covered her face in embarrassment. And simultaneously, most people watching cringed—or at least felt a pang of embarrassment for her in their chests.

“You need an audience to feel embarrassed,” says Frieder Paulus, a psychologist at the Lübeck University in Germany. The emotion is social: It tells us when we have violated a social norm and makes us feel bad for doing so.

We have to actually know what these norms are to know we’ve violated them. Tripping is more or less universally embarrassing; we all know humans are meant to be upright creatures. But years ago, Paulus and his lab director Sören Krach attended a presentation by someone who bragged unabashedly about his work, clearly unaware of what a fool he looked like in front of his peers, Melissa Dahl writes in her new book Cringeworthy. The two realized that watching their colleague humiliate himself was painful, even though they knew they had done nothing themselves that was outside of social norms. They decided to explore this phenomenon further in their lab.

Their research team conducted two studies on the neurological underpinnings of vicarious embarrassment, published simultaneously in 2011. First, researchers asked students to rank various embarrassing scenarios—like belching in a fancy restaurant, tripping in the mud, and wearing a shirt that says “I am sexy” (which doesn’t seem particularly embarrassing to me, but perhaps my fashion choices are questionable)—in terms of how they would feel if it happened to them. The scientists also asked people how they would feel if they saw someone else in any of these situations. They then had the students take a survey to get a sense of how much empathy they felt for others on a regular basis. It turned out that the study participants felt embarrassed for others in more scenarios than they felt embarrassed for themselves. They also found that those who generally feel more empathy tend to feel even more second-hand embarrassment.

Next, researchers had a separate group of college students lie in an fMRI while looking at a series of pictures of embarrassing scenarios. Two parts of their brain lit up with activity: the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula, which had previously been connected with feeling pain and recognition of emotions, respectively. Taken together, the surveys and fMRI studies suggest that someone else’s mistakes can cause a kind of social pain—particularly if you’re readily able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

It’s not clear why we have the capacity to cringe for others. Reflecting on the question in 2018, Paulus said there may not be a reason for it. We feel others’ embarrassment only because we are empathetic. It’s necessary for us to imagine how someone else thinks and feels because it determines how we treat others and cooperate with one another. Feeling second-hand embarrassment is probably just a byproduct of amore important trait, much like how the (useless) belly button is a relic of the (absolutely essential) umbilical cord.

Thankfully, no one can die from embarrassment, although it sure may feel like it. But our ability to feel social connections and emotions like embarrassment can impact our behavior. Individuals with extreme social anxiety, for example are so concerned with interacting with others and potentially feeling judged and embarrassed that they isolate themselves, Krach says.

Krach and Paulus have also done work on the impacts of vicarious embarrassment at the population level. After the 2016 US presidential election, their team parsed the Twitter reactions of American liberals to the election results, and found an increase in the number of tweets expressing embarrassment for the country.

In a number of stories written over the past year, journalists and sociologists (paywall) have articulated the feeling among the political left that the president has been an embarrassment to the country. In a way, though, this is a good sign, Dahl argues. The left could have wallowed in schadenfreude, enjoying watching their political adversary fail. Instead, “embarrassment implies compassionate empathy, or feeling what someone else is,” Dahl writes in Cringeworthy. “The relationship isn’t completely dissolved.” Liberals’ relationship with the current president may not be stellar, but their secondhand embarrassment implies that they still identify with the US. Cringing over the president on the internet expresses the feeling that Trump’s behavior doesn’t line up with their views, while also indicating a feeling of being connected enough to the country that they’d want him to change.

“This powerful vicarious [embarrassment] helps elicit action, such as political engagement, write Krach and Paulus’s team in an upcoming paper, prepublished to PsyArXive (pdf), an open-access online repository where researchers upload finished work before the peer-review process is complete. “Second-hand embarrassment will boost the search for other forms of representation which may transgress and break the official institutional frame.” So as painful as national cringe can feel, it may be a necessary feeling to power politics forward.