Vicarious Embarrassment: Awkward Moments Trigger Pain Centers in the Brain

When we witness an awkward moment, pain centers in the brain light up.

April 13, 2011, 1:47 PM

April 15, 2011— -- Ever wonder why some people can't stand the over-the-top awkwardness of characters on "The Office" while others love it? It may have to do with the ability to feel empathy, according to new research from the Philipps-University Marburg in Germany.

Researchers analyzed how people experience vicarious embarrassment -- that cringe we feel when the host of a party makes a toast with a piece of spinach in his teeth -- and found that it was closely tied to feelings of empathy and empathy centers in the brain.

A group of 619 German twenty-somethings were shown a series of vignettes depicting a stranger getting into embarrassing situations, and then asked to rate how much embarrassment they felt for him. Sometimes the stranger was oblivious to their faux-pas, like the spinach-in-the-teeth example. Sometimes they were painfully aware -- one showed a person bending over and splitting his pants.

Though empathy is usually thought of as pain we experience with someone -- they suffer and we suffer with them -- researchers found that the subjects felt vicarious embarrassment even when the strangers in question were blissfully unaware of their pratfalls.

"We are wired for empathy," says Dr. Marco Iacoboni, professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. "Human instinct is to be empathic. We can't help it." For centuries, he says, scientists thought of empathy upside-down: that we were animals fighting for survival and it was only our higher brain functions that allowed us to feel cooperative emotions such as empathy. Neuroscientists are now finding that our brains are wired on a very basic level to feel empathy for others, though obviously the capacity for empathy varies from person to person.

In general, however, neuroscientists are finding that the more empathic a person is in general, the higher the level of embarrassment and discomfort they feel for others when they see another's embarrassing situation.

"It may be that they automatically imagine themselves as being that person in that [embarrassing] situation," says Frieder Paulus, a co-author and psychologist at Philipps-University Marburg. This may be what leads some to switch the channel when they see shows that capitalize on social embarrassment, such a pratfall on "Dancing With the Stars" or a hopeless performance on "American Idol."

"Some people think it's funny and others, you can tell it's painful for them to watch. You see the faces they make like they are hurting themselves," Paulus says.

And in fact, pain centers in the brain reliably light up when we view others' misfortunes. The anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), parts of the brain called the "pain matrix," are activated when we feel pain for others.

Vicarious Embarrassment: The New Schadenfreude?

Though social scientists are just beginning to understand what is going on in the brain when we watch someone slip publically, feeling embarrassed for others is a familiar emotion. In Germany it's known as "fremdscham" -- literally "external shame," the empathic cousin to the well-known "schadenfreude" that better explains the humor and delight people who love "The Office" find in the characters' social flummoxing.

In the U.S., the slang "tartingly" is sometimes used for this vicarious embarrassment, as in: "I felt so tartingly when he proposed in public over the stadium jumbotron and the girl said 'no.'"

But if our brains our wired to feel emotional pain in the face of these "tartingly" moments, why do these social slip ups feature in so many forms of comedy?

It's difficult to say why some people respond in this way, Iacoboni says, "I think that the tendency of looking into the funny aspects of this stuff is a way of dealing with it. Seeing you get into an embarrassing situation, I may feel the pain of it as if it were me, and one way of coping with that experience of pain is by laughing at it."

The study was published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One.