The Odd Empathy of Vicarious Embarrassment

Do you recognize any of these moments? There's Ted Cruz and his daughter; Obama and his daughters (when he was pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey in 2014); Jennifer Lawrence wiping out at the 2013 Oscars; and, of course, Michael Scott, from the U.S. versi... Kevin Winter/Mark Wilson/NBC Universal/Getty

In this video from a January campaign event in Iowa, presidential hopeful Ted Cruz leans in to give his young daughter a kiss on the cheek. What happens next is pretty brutal: Cameras rolling, the 7-year-old flicks repeatedly at his face and then protests "Ow, ow, ow" as she tries to physically escape him.

Whatever you think of the guy, it's hard not to cringe, especially as he glances sheepishly at the camera. Apparently, there's good reason for this: We're wired to feel his pain.


"The brain is an expert in simulating the inner states and affective experience of other human beings," says Dr. Sören Krach, professor of psychiatry and psychotherapy and head of the Social Neuroscience Lab at the University of Lübeck in Germany. It's this ability, Krach says, that enables empathy — and in the Cruz case, an emotional state known as vicarious embarrassment.

Generally speaking, empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling, or the state of doing so. In the neurosciences, it's more precisely "a shared emotional state between you and another person you observe or interact with," Krach writes in an email, and it is a very specific experience.

Empathy, Strictly Speaking

To qualify as empathetic, Krach explains, an observer's emotion must closely match the emotion of the observed (which distinguishes it from sympathy), and the observer must be aware that what he is feeling is entirely unrelated to his own circumstances — that it's the result of witnessing the circumstances of the observed.

"From a neuroscience perspective this is a very interesting phenomenon since you now have to distinguish this emotional experience from those that arose from your own body," Krach notes.

Vicarious embarrassment seems to fit nicely with the empathy model. An observer feels discomfort or shame upon witnessing someone else's public faux pas, like bragging to a whole party about how much money she makes, or delivering a presentation with smudged lipstick, or tripping up the stairs at an awards show.

Krach and colleague Dr. Frieder M. Paulus, research assistant at the Social Neuroscience Lab, led a 2011 study exploring the relationship between vicarious embarrassment and empathy, and they found some strong links. Among them, subjects who scored higher on a scale of empathy also scored higher on a scale of vicarious embarrassment, and on fMRI they showed greater activation of the affective areas of the pain matrix when watching people embarrass themselves.

The affective pain matrix — the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula — processes emotional pain, including the empathetic kind.

Yet there's a twist: Vicarious embarrassment doesn't always qualify as empathy.  

"You could observe someone having a talk in front of a large audience and suddenly forget the lines and start to stutter," Paulus writes in an email. "In this situation, the person ... is fully aware about the accidental mishap and experiences embarrassment him- or herself," he says, so an observer's embarrassment is a shared emotional state — the first criterion for empathy.

If you squirmed watching the Cruz video, this is probably what you were feeling. But there's another kind of vicarious embarrassment.

"Think of the presenter coming back from the restroom and walking through the aisle in the auditorium with toilet paper hanging out of the back of his trousers," says Paulus. Unaware of the situation, the presenter feels nothing. Only the observer feels embarrassed. The observer's emotion doesn't match the emotion of the observed.

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Who can make you feel vicarious embarrassment more acutely than Michael Scott (or David Brent) from "The Office"?
Justin Lubin/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

More Complex Than It Seems

The researchers therefore "understand vicarious embarrassment as an umbrella term that covers two distinct phenomena," writes Krach.

There's "the empathic embarrassment, when you share the embarrassment of another," and then there's "the vicarious embarrassment that you experience ... when no signs of embarrassment are present" in the observed, writes Krach.

To distinguish them, they sometimes speak of embarrassment with another and embarrassment for another, Paulus adds.

Both types correlate with empathy in the degree to which people experience them. That only one actually qualifies as empathy raises some interesting questions about our understanding of the empathetic state.

Maybe empathy's shared emotional state is not time-dependent. Perhaps, as Maia Szalavitz writes in Time, it can be anticipatory. An observer who experiences vicarious embarrassment on spotting the toilet paper may in fact be empathizing with the embarrassment he assumes the presenter will feel later on, when he realizes what happened.

Or maybe there are simply two types of empathy: empathy for, and empathy with.

The role of empathy in vicarious embarrassment may become clearer as research in the area picks up. What is certain now, Krach says, is the role of the witness.

"Without the presence of the other people no embarrassment, or vicarious embarrassment, would be experienced," he says. Vicarious embarrassment is a "genuine public emotion."