A friend of mine sent me an article regarding a recent study of “vicarious embarrassment.” The article describes how a team of European scientists found that there’s a physiological reason why certain episodes of shows such as “The Office” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “American Idol” have the power to elicit some hard-to-take feeling states. The researchers coined the discomfort at seeing others look foolish as “vicarious embarrassment.”
“Vicarious embarrassment”, according to the study published recently in a journal called PLoS ONE, activates the region of our brains that processes empathy. In one experiment, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the brain’s “pain matrix”; namely the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula of the brain, while 619 participants read a series of vignettes describing embarrassing moments. That “pain matrix” is the area that processes actual, physical pain, but previous research has shown that this is where social pain, including empathy, is felt, as well. Protagonists in the vignettes slipped in mud, walked around with their fly open, burped loudly in a fancy restaurant and wore T-shirts bragging about their sexual prowess. In these vignettes, some of the characters were conscious of behaving in a ridiculous manner, while other characters were not.
“Vicarious embarrassment was experienced regardless of whether the observed protagonist acted accidentally or intentionally and was aware or unaware that he/she was in an embarrassing situation,” write the study authors, led by Sören Krach and Frieder M. Paulus from Philipps-University Marburg, Germany.
The participants were also asked to rate how embarrassed they would feel if they were in the person’s position. Not surprisingly, compassionate people were more likely to experience second-hand shame, proving what we have already discussed at great length in our book: the more empathic you are, the more likely you will be to suffer vicariously for yourself.
This study is so valuable because it empirically demonstrates that humans can easily struggle with the upset of another “as if” it were actually happening to them. This study truly strengthens the perspective that those in the business of using their compassion and empathy to help others are affected; not only in their minds, but physiologically in their brains and in their bodies.
If “vicarious embarrassment” can be addressed as newsworthy, then certainly Second-Hand Shock deserves our attention as a veritable syndrome that burdens our caring heroes. Let’s all step up to be of assistance to those who sacrifice their own health and well-being for the greater good!