Who has never been embarrassed by a close other? Imagine you and your best friend dress up for the opera, both of you very excited about this spectacular event taking place in your home town. It is the premiere with the mayor and significant others attending. You have a perfect view on the stage and it seems a wonderful night. Silence. Nothing but the beautiful voice of the soprano. Amidst the aria a mobile close to you starts playing “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice. Even in the front row people start turning their heads and staring into the direction of the perpetrator. It feels like hours until your friend sitting to the left of you finally manages to turn off the music. You perceive the blood in your vessels racing into your face and your heart palpitations dramatically accelerate while you try to avert your gaze from the auditory.
What happened? Although it was not your fault, your mobile, or your choice of music, you experience the flush and the unpleasantness of embarrassment escalating through your own body. This phenomenon, known as vicarious embarrassment, is an interpersonal and painful emotion experienced on behalf of others’ blunders and pratfalls. From behavioural and neuroimaging studies, we know that most human affect is rooted in the social ties with the environment that we are living in. On the neural system’s level, cortical midline structures, parts of the temporal lobe, and a region called the insula have been shown to be involved in the unpleasant experience of vicarious social pain, with vicarious embarrassment being a prominent example. The same brain regions have also been implicated when we share others’ physical pain, where they help us to feel the harm to another’s body. Likewise, our vicarious embarrassment gives us a sense of the damage to the social integrity of our fellow human beings, enabling us to relieve the devastating moments and initiate helping behaviour and reparations.
Returning to the initial anecdote, imagine whether you would have felt the same cringe if the ringing mobile of the person to your right belonged to a stranger? How does social relatedness modulate the chagrin that you experience?
To answer this question several factors have to be considered. First, the closer you are to someone the stronger your affective ties are, and thus the more intense caring for the other’s affect. Second, based on the numerous shared past experiences with your friends (e.g. sharing the grief upon the death of a friend or joint cheering in a sports event, as well as common attitudes such as rejection of racism), the mental representations of what’s going on in your friend’s mind during this unpleasant moment will be more vivid and rich as compared to an unknown other. Thus, you care more and are much better able to empathize with your friend on your left than with the stranger sitting to your right.
But what about yourself? As many humans have a strong motivation to feel connected to their social environment and accordingly are concerned about the portrayal of their social image, appreciation and positive feedback of others is important. People give feedback for one’s behaviours and attitudes through various channels. This feedback not only makes us understand the expectations of our milieu and the prevailing social norms and principals for social interactions, it also shapes the social image that one aims to portray. However, one’s close friends’ (mis)behaviours impact and threaten our social images vicariously, as friendship presumes a sharing of certain attitudes, norms, and values. In the above anecdote the circumstances are indeed severely unfavourable for your friend’s social image, but at the same time, your own social image is also being endangered. You might engage in reasoning about what the audience might think of you being a close friend to the heedless perpetrator who does not only have a questionable taste of music, but is so careless in disturbing this beautiful evening. The predicament might enhance self-related thoughts and concerns about what others might think of you.
In your brain, the precuneus in the parietal lobe, a structure known to be involved in representing others’ mental states as well as in self-related thoughts steps in. When you perceive your friend’s misbehaviour in public, the precuneus gets active as you start reflecting about yourself. This activation goes along with an increased information transfer with those areas in the cortical midline structures of the frontal lobe that mediate the vicarious embarrassment experience. It seems that the concerns about your own social image significantly contribute to your cringe-worthy moment in the opera, even though you aren’t responsible for any of what happened. Here you are at the borderline to feeling embarrassed for yourself since your related parties’ actions will reflect upon you and damage your social image. This example illustrates how much our emotional reactions depend on the social ties to our environment and are very much interpersonal in nature.
How much of these emotional experiences we are able to capture, while we try to characterize their neural foundations in the social isolation of the neuroscience laboratories, remains to be determined. There might be no need to walk into the opera with an EEG cap, or invite the audience to the MRI, but it is certainly reasonable to develop more interactive situations that make people feel directly connected to their social environment. This will help neuroscience to better understand all those factors that make us feel emotions such as vicarious embarrassment.
Featured image: Red cinema seats. (c) habrda via iStock.