This is why you cringe when someone else embarrasses themselves


Krach and Paulus have also done work on the impacts of vicarious embarrassment at the population level. After the 2016 US presidential election, their team parsed the Twitter reactions of American liberals to the election results, and found an increase in the number of tweets expressing embarrassment for the country.

In a number of stories written over the past year, journalists and sociologists (paywall) have articulated the feeling among the political left that the president has been an embarrassment to the country. In a way, though, this is a good sign, Dahl argues. The left could have wallowed in schadenfreude, enjoying watching their political adversary fail. Instead, “embarrassment implies compassionate empathy, or feeling what someone else is,” Dahl writes in Cringeworthy. “The relationship isn’t completely dissolved.” Liberals’ relationship with the current president may not be stellar, but their secondhand embarrassment implies that they still identify with the US. Cringing over the president on the internet expresses the feeling that Trump’s behavior doesn’t line up with their views, while also indicating a feeling of being connected enough to the country that they’d want him to change.

“This powerful vicarious [embarrassment] helps elicit action, such as political engagement, write Krach and Paulus’s team in an upcoming paper, prepublished to PsyArXive (pdf), an open-access online repository where researchers upload finished work before the peer-review process is complete. “Second-hand embarrassment will boost the search for other forms of representation which may transgress and break the official institutional frame.” So as painful as national cringe can feel, it may be a necessary feeling to power politics forward.