SEARCH

Entries in Philipps-University Marburg (1)

Friday
Apr152011

Vicarious Embarrassment a Pain in the Brain

Stockbyte/Thinkstock(LOS ANGELES) -- Ever wonder why some people can't stand the over-the-top awkwardness of characters on The Office while others love it? It may have to do with the ability to feel empathy, according to new research from the Philipps-University Marburg in Germany.

Researchers analyzed how people experience vicarious embarrassment -- that cringe we feel when the host of a party makes a toast with a piece of spinach in his teeth -- and found that it was closely tied to feelings of empathy and empathy centers in the brain.

A group of 619 German 20-somethings were shown a series of vignettes depicting a stranger getting into embarrassing situations, and then asked to rate how much embarrassment they felt for him. Sometimes the stranger was oblivious to their faux-pas, like the spinach-in-the-teeth example. Sometimes they were painfully aware -- one showed a person bending over and splitting his pants.

Though empathy is usually thought of as pain we experience with someone -- they suffer and we suffer with them -- researchers found that the subjects felt vicarious embarrassment even when the strangers in question were blissfully unaware of their pratfalls.

"We are wired for empathy," says Dr. Marco Iacoboni, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. "Human instinct is to be empathic. We can't help it."

For centuries, he says, scientists thought of empathy upside-down: that we were animals fighting for survival and it was only our higher brain functions that allowed us to feel cooperative emotions such as empathy. Neuroscientists are now finding that our brains are wired on a very basic level to feel empathy for others, though obviously the capacity for empathy varies from person to person.

The study was published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio







ABC News Radio