Why We Feel Embarrassment for Other People’s Mistakes


Most people feel embarrassed if they see others making mistakes in public. This study is a combination of two experiments where the mechanisms of such feelings are explored. The results showed that vicarious embarrassment was experienced regardless of whether the observed person making mistakes acted accidentally or intentionally and was aware or unaware that s/he was in an embarrassing situation. A brain scan in the second part of the study showed that the areas of the brain that feel pain or empathy for others are affected in these situations as well.

Sociology researchers have studied various social emotions like guilt, embarrassment, shame, and pride as connected to oneself and others. These emotions are said to be more complex than the simple and basic emotions of happiness or sadness. It is observed that one often feels embarrassment if one notices another person making social etiquette errors and gaffes. This feeling of empathy for another person has been observed even if the viewer himself or herself is not responsible for the mistake or predicament. Until now, studies have explored the areas of the brain that react to pain suffered by others. This study is a combination of two small studies wherein the brain mechanism behind the embarrassment suffered for others is explored in detail.

* For the first study, 139 men and 480 women with a mean age of 23 years were included.
* The participants of the study were shown situations where a person is faced with an embarrassing predicament. This could be when there was an accidental mistake, the embarrassing consequences of which the sufferer was aware or unaware of. It could also be a deliberate action, the awkward outcome of which the sufferer was aware or unaware. The participants were asked to rate the embarrassment they felt on viewing such situations in which the sufferers found themselves.
* For the second study, 15 men and 17 women with a mean age of 22 years were included.
* The participants of the study were given embarrassing situations to view while their brains were scanned using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

* The results of study one showed that when a person is seen making a mistake by accident while being aware of it, there is a high emotional reaction to it. For the other situations, there is an intense feeling of embarrassment that is similar for all the situations.
* The results of study two showed that the participants felt more embarrassed about others’ mistakes than the actual embarrassment felt by the sufferers. This was best seen in those situations where the person’s mistake was accidental and deliberate, with or without awareness.
* The results of the second study also revealed that certain areas of the brain lighten up when a person observes another person in an embarrassing situation. These areas, named the anterior cingulated cortex and the left anterior insula, are stimulated when feeling someone else’s pain or suffering.

The authors agree that levels of empathy towards another’s predicament may vary from person to person. This could have affected the results of study one. They suggest that this is the first study that segregates accidental and deliberate social mistakes where the sufferer is aware or unaware of their predicament. Further studies in this aspect may throw some more light on the matter.

This is the first study that explores the mechanism of embarrassment felt for a fellow human being when they make a public mistake either accidentally or intentionally in both aware and unaware states. The levels of embarrassment being felt for all four combinations of situations are similar. Contrary to expectation, even when sufferers make the mistake in an unaware state as an accident, or intentionally while being aware or unaware of the embarrassment caused, they do not fail to evoke embarrassment in the observers. The study also shows that the areas of the brain that are stimulated when a person empathizes with another’s pain and suffering are the same as the areas that feel embarrassment when  one makes mistakes in social etiquette.

For Your Information:
Your Flaws Are My Pain: Linking Empathy to Vicarious Embarrassment
Publication Journal: PLoS One, April 2011
By Sören Krach; Jan Cohrs
From the Philipps-University Marburg, Marburg, Germany and Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, United Kingdom

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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