We’ve all watched in mortification when a person falls flat on their face in public whether figuratively or physically. But does second-hand embarrassment really exist?

They may think they’re strong…

The concept originates from the German word ‘Fremdscham’, made up of the words fremd (foreign or alien) and Scham (shame or embarrassment). Literally translated, this means “alien shame”, or more logically, the sheer embarrassment you feel when you witness somebody else being humiliated. Examples include that awkward moment when a friend attempts to tell a funny joke but the punchline falls flat (or worse off, offends someone), or if you’re watching someone giving a speech and their fly’s undone.

The closest English word to ‘Fremdscham’ is cringe-worthy, but it doesn’t specifically relate to the embarrassment felt for a person who isn’t you. Thus the better and more apt term would be second-hand embarrassment.

People often experience such embarrassing episodes, yet little research on the topic exists on second-hand embarrassment, or, to use a more technical variant, “vicarious” embarrassment. But now scientists have discovered the reason why watching Michael Scott’s most awkward moments on The Office can make you cringe. A recent study found that watching other people make fools of themselves actually activates the part of the brain where we process pain.

A study by British and German researchers had subjects presented with accounts of a series of awkward everyday situations, including someone slipping in mud, leaving their fly open, and burping in a fancy restaurant. Whether the person was aware that they had embarrassed themselves or completely oblivious, the situation caused the regions of the brain related to pain — the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula — to activate. The reaction in the brain was more concentrated for those who described themselves as very empathetic.

There are two forms of empathy. Firstly, there’s the occasion when we see someone who knows they’ve behaved inappropriately, and we co-experience their feelings. Secondly, there’s the instance in which the person doesn’t realize what they’ve done, so we react to our evaluation of the situation.

If empathising is a natural reaction, where does the secret enjoyment come from? Our reflex reaction is to either cringe in embarrassment, or laugh hysterically. We can link this to the enjoyment we get from watching people be humiliated on reality TV. The appeal of seeing others’ plights exploited on TV or social media seems to be not only present but prevalent in our society, irrelevant of whether the person in focus realizes their mishap. Take for instance a model tripping on America’s Next Top Model, or a contestant singing completely out of tune on X Factor.

If you think about it, the effect of laughing at other people’s misfortunes isn’t a novelty in the media. It has long been used in theatre and comedy skits. Remember the early slapstick comedians like Charlie Chaplin or Laurel & Hardy – who utilised precisely this kind of humour. They were quite literally making light of an otherwise mortifying experience, which would humiliate a person where it to happen in real life. Today’s media, too, increasingly zooms in on these daily situations; not only to laugh at them, but to feel with and for others to the entertainment of millions of spectators.

Perhaps such a reaction boils down to the selfishness in human propensity – which whether we’d like to admit or not – is something that’s ingrained within us innately. And let’s be honest, we’d rather feel this ‘distant’, second-hand embarrassment, rather than experience it first-hand ourselves, at the cost of being the laughing stock ourselves, right?