Why We Feel Embarrassment for Others

Ever watch a person nervously sweating bullets and stammering his speech throughout a presentation, leaving your stomach turning into a ball of knots for him? This I-am-dying-inside-for-him feeling is called “vicarious embarrassment.” Researchers from Germany wanted to understand more about why we get embarrassed when watching other people make mistakes. Interestingly, they found the human brain is built to feel empathy at such high levels that the vicarious embarrassment we feel is even stronger than what the guy with the microphone is experiencing.

Why do we feel more embarrassed than the person who actually made the misstep? According to the brain scans, the areas of the brain that light up in these situations trigger both feelings of empathy and embarrassment. This may in part explain why we feel more embarrassed for the person than they feel for themselves.

While this study is the first to explore such a topic, it does have its shortcomings. Individuals experience empathy very differently. Take the bad singers who audition for America Idol as an example. Some consider these talentless contestants to be the funniest part of the show. Others, however, find moments like that so unbearable to watch that it raises their anxiety to the point of having to turn off their televisions.

Next time you see that best man stumbling through his speech, don’t let it bring you down. You may, and probably do, actually feel worse about the whole situation than he does.


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