We’ve all felt the prickle of embarrassment when we witness someone very publically falls over. But, why?
It’s 8:30 and your eyelids snap open. You have t-minus ten minutes to make a quick lunch, mask your sleep deprivation with various creams, machete the jungle that sits atop your head, de-mortify your breath and grab your briefcase to take the morning train.
Sprinting down the stairs, your sleepy feet catch and you begin to tumble. The horror. Landing with a thud, you frantically shove all your papers back inside your leather carry-on, sprinting through the door towards the station with hardly a second thought. Now add a crowd, and suddenly your actions are measured, slow and crippled by the unblinking stare of strangers. Suddenly the tumble leaves you lobster-faced, sweaty and ill. Why?
The difference, of course, is the audience. Leading psychological theories now suggest that you need spectators to feel embarrassed. The emotion is social, telling us to feel guilty for violating a particular social norm.
According to studies by Frieder Paulus, people must first know these norms to feel the sensation of embarrassment. Which makes sense right? Because a toddler in public isn’t going to be reduced to a sweaty puddle of angsty mess every time it trips over.
Paulus and his lab director Sören Krach have conducted two studies into the neurological underpinnings of “vicarious embarrassment”. The first involved the following process:
- Researchers asked students to rank various embarrassing scenarios – including burping at a fancy restaurant, tripping in mud and wearing an “I am sexy” T-shirt (we all know that one person that makes us all cringe at social events) – as if they were to happen to them personally;
- They also asked each students what they’d think if they saw others around them do these things;
- Next came a survey (because we all love surveys so much…) to gauge each student’s empathy in general situations.
The results were quite interesting: participants felt embarrassed for others in more scenarios than they felt embarrassed for themselves. Those who show more empathy also tended to feel more second-hand embarrassment.
By contrast, the second study mapped neurological stimulation using a fMRI machine whilst patients were exposed to embarrassing images. Two parts of the brain lit up: the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula, which are thought to be responsible for feeling pain and detecting the emotions of those around us.
So essentially together with the survey, these findings have attempted to explain why we feel a certain cringe – a “social pain” if you will – when exposed to others’ mistakes. Second-hand embarrassment and empathy seem to be the common denominator: an answer so simple we can’t help but cringe.