A new study may explain why we cringe when watching other people commit social gaffes in public, US News and World Report reported.This vicarious embarrassment – known to many as “secondhand embarrassment” can happen whether the person is someone we observe in real life, on television or on the internet. It also doesn’t appear to matter whether or not the person who commits the transgression experiences discomfort or shame.
The researchers found that vicarious embarrassment is linked to empathy and neural activations in the same brain areas that play a role in feeling pain – the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula.
The findings indicate that there may be two forms of empathy, according to the researchers. One form is a co-experience of another person’s feelings, compared to the other which is a reflection of the observer’s own evaluation of a situation.
“Today, nearly any aspect of one’s personal life may reach a broad audience,” the researchers said in a press release. “Any publicly exposed atypical, awkward or flawed behavior has the potential to evoke vicarious embarrassment in others. Lastly, it depends on the observers to conclude what is inappropriate in the specific social context or not.”
“Among all these involved processes, however, we believe it is the tendency to represent another’s situation that could mediate the embodied experience of the social emotion,” they said.
The study was published in PLoS One.