Friday, April 15, 2011

Vicarious Embarrassment and Why we are Embarrassed for people like Micheal Scott on The Office

People vicariously experience embarrassment when observing others' public pratfalls or etiquette violations. In two consecutive studies we investigated the subjective experience and the neural correlates of vicarious embarrassment for others in a broad range of situations. We demonstrated, first, that 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. Second, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we showed that the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula, two cortical structures typically involved in vicarious feelings of others' pain, are also strongly implicated in experiencing the ‘social pain’ for others' flaws and pratfalls. This holds true even for situations that engage protagonists not aware of their current predicament. Importantly, the activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula positively correlated with individual differences in trait empathy. The present findings establish the empathic process as a fundamental prerequisite for vicarious embarrassment experiences, thus connecting affect and cognition to interpersonal processes.

“When we are living with people who have a delicate sense of propriety, we are in misery on their account when anything unbecoming is committed. So I always feel for and with Charlotte when a person is tipping his chair. She cannot endure it.” [Elective Affinities, J. W. Goethe].