Why Your Embarrassment Causes Me So Much Pain

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Ever find yourself physically cringing as you watch those hopeful contestants on American Idol who have no clue that they can’t sing? If so, you’re probably a highly empathetic person, according to new study published in the journal PloS One.

In fact, the study finds, the experience of vicarious embarrassment affects the same brain regions that light up when you empathize with someone’s physical pain. The study adds to a growing body of literature suggesting that physical and emotional pain are processed in the same brain regions, which is probably why we describe ourselves as “hurt” whether we’ve just been dumped by a lover or broken a leg.

Now add watching someone walk around with toilet paper on their shoe to the list of shared emotional trauma.

The new research suggests not only that we empathize with other people’s embarrassment as we do their pain, but that we also experience this vicarious emotion whether or not we the person being embarrassed is aware of their social predicament.

In the study, which was led by Soren Krach of Phillipps University in Marburg, Germany, 480 women and 139 men were asked to rate how they would feel if they themselves experienced certain embarrassing scenarios or observed others in the same situation. The vignettes included experiences like stumbling during a speech or slipping in the mud — some were accidental faux pas, and others were situations where the person deliberately violated social rules, like belching loudly. In these examples, both the embarrassed person and the audience were aware of the humiliation.

Alternatively situations were described in which the people being embarrassed were unaware of their humiliation, such as walking around unknowingly with their fly unzipped.

When imagining themselves as the embarrassed party, the study participants felt most uncomfortable when putting themselves in accidentally humiliating situations that everyone knew about. However, when asked to imagine observing other people in similar situations, the participants’ vicarious embarrassment was even greater — especially in those cases of people who were blind to their own humiliation.

The higher the participants’ ratings on a scale of empathy, the greater the discomfort they felt relating to other people’s embarrassment. The fact that this was true even when the people in the situation were unaware that they were being embarrassed suggested that the participants’ empathy was anticipatory — being projected forward to the moment at which people would discover, for example, having given a speech with their pants open.

Since the more empathetic people did not rate their own embarrassment as higher when they imagined themselves getting humiliated, their discomfort with others’ experiences seems to be related to actual empathy, rather than with simply being more likely to feel embarrassed.

A second experiment involved imaging the brains of 32 participants, 17 of whom were women. Again, people who rated higher on empathy showed greater vicarious embarrassment. They also showed higher levels of activation in a brain region called the anterior insula, which is the part of a brain involved in processing the unpleasant emotions associated with pain (as opposed to the location or type of pain). Interestingly, this region is also activated during the experience of disgust.

The study helps explain why we may literally cringe from either pain or embarrassment, whether it’s our own or that of someone who doesn’t even know they’re being humiliated.

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