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Why Someone Else's Gaffe Makes You Cringe

FRIDAY, April 15 (HealthDay News) -- A new study helps explain why people feel embarrassed when they observe other people's flaws and social transgressions, whether in real life, on television or on the Internet.

This vicarious embarrassment can occur even if the person you're watching doesn't feel any discomfort or shame, according to the study published April 13 in the journal PLoS One.

"We were fascinated about how frequent people report their vicarious embarrassment experiences in everyday life, and how little empirical research on this topic exists. Apparently, there are many occasions one could experience this vicarious emotion for another currently not feeling anything," the researchers wrote in a journal news release.

They found that vicarious embarrassment is linked to empathy and neural activations in brain areas that play a role in feeling pain -- the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula.

The findings suggest there are two forms of empathy, the researchers said. One is essentially a co-experience of another person's feelings, while the other reflects an observer's own evaluation of a situation in a social context.

"Today, nearly any aspect of one's personal life may reach a broad audience. Any publicly exposed atypical, awkward or flawed behavior has the potential to evoke vicarious embarrassment in others. Lastly, it depends on the observers to conclude what is inappropriate in the specific social context or not," the researchers wrote.

"Among all these involved processes, however, we believe it is the tendency to represent another's situation that could mediate the embodied experience of the social emotion," they added in the release.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics talks about empathy.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: PLoS One, news release, April 13, 2011

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