The Neuroscience of Social Embarrassment

May 2, 2018

Watching events unfold when humans are subject to public embarrassment can lead to vicarious feelings-and change activity in the brain.

Empathy is considered one of the most emotionally mature responses to the negative experiences of other people. Another, seemingly contrasting, response that almost everyone has experienced (but few would like to admit), is the feeling of satisfaction that may surface in response to watching negative events or outcomes that affect other people.

Schadenfreude vs. fremdscham

Watching events unfold when humans are subject to public embarrassment can lead to vicarious feelings. These feelings can be either negative or positive, depending on the circumstances. Factors such as the background that led to the embarrassment, whether the person who was publicly embarrassed wronged someone else, and whether the observer of the embarrassment has ever behaved in the same way as the person who experienced the humiliation can all impact the observer’s emotional responses.

As one learns the details of another’s humiliation, the narrative can trigger feelings of either schadenfreude or fremdscham.1 The former is to delight in witnessing another person’s pain; the latter is a feeling of embarrassment on behalf of that person. As many have experienced, the positive and negative personal reactions to the disgrace of others can flip flop within a short period of time, as more information about the cause and effect of the situation emerges.

Any pleasant emotional response to the misfortune of others may only be seen as appropriate when it provides a sort of closure, or plays out justified “karma” in action. For example, if a person cut in front of you in line at the store, you might derive some brief feelings of pleasure when watching him or her unexpectedly step on chewing gum; however, you might feel empathy if he has no money to pay his items. As with many situations, the consequences experienced by others, particularly when it comes to embarrassing situations, elicit emotions based on perceived fairness.

The brain and vicarious embarrassment

Interestingly, there are different regions of the brain associated with these similar, yet contrasting, feelings. Reality television sets the stage for vicarious feelings because the characters are not completely scripted and are believed to experience some unanticipated situations while viewers are watching. A research study in Germany exposed participants to high vicarious embarrassment situations through reality television shows and measured their responses using fMRI.2 Participants in the high vicarious embarrassment condition showed greater activation in the middle temporal gyrus, the supramarginal gyrus, the right inferior frontal gyrus, and the gyrus rectus. Another study, also in Germany, used fMRI to compare the brain’s response to schadenfreude and fremscham.1 It turns out that the left anterior insula was less activated if observers were asked to focus on their schadenfreude.

Overall, these results answer some questions about brain activation in response to viewing other people’s shame. The question they do not answer, however, is how well humans can control whether we have a positive or negative emotional response to the embarrassment of others.

References:

1. Paulus FM, Müller-Pinzler L, Stolz DS, et al. Laugh or cringe? Common and distinct processes of reward-based schadenfreude and empathy-based fremdscham. Neuropsychologia. 2017; June S0028-3932(17)30203-30208.

2. Montag C, Trautner P, Weber B, et al. Reality TV and vicarious embarrassment: an fMRI study. Neuroimage. 2015;109:109-117.