Vicarious embarrassment (also known as secondhand, empathetic, or third-party embarrassment and also as Spanish shame[1][2] or Fremdschämen in German[3][4]) is the feeling of embarrassment from observing the embarrassing actions of another person. Unlike general embarrassment, vicarious embarrassment is not the feelings of embarrassment for yourself or for your own actions, but instead by feeling embarrassment for somebody else after witnessing (verbally and/or visually) that other person experiences an embarrassing event. These emotions can be perceived as pro-social, and some say they can be seen as motives for following socially and culturally acceptable behavior.[5][6]

Vicarious embarrassment (German: Fremdscham) is often seen as an opposite to schadenfreude, which is the feeling of pleasure or satisfaction at misfortune, humiliation or embarrassment of another person.[7][8]

Vicarious embarrassment is different from an emotional contagion, which is when a person unconsciously mimics the emotions that others are experiencing.[9] An emotional contagion is experienced by both people, making it a shared emotion. Vicarious embarrassment often occurs even when the individual experiencing the embarrassing event might not be aware of the implications. For an act to be considered an emotional contagion, more than one person must be affected by the emotion, but in vicarious emotions, it is only necessary that the observer experience the emotion.[10] Furthermore, vicarious embarrassment can be experienced even when the observer is completely isolated.[11][12][13]

Vicarious embarrassment, like other vicarious emotions, presents symptoms that reflect the original emotion. However, unlike shared emotions, the experience of embarrassment for the observer is dependent on how they normally experience embarrassment. Individuals who experience social anxiety in their own life may experience the familiar symptoms of blushing,[12][14] excess sweating, trembling, palpitations, and nausea.[15][16] Other, less severe symptoms may include cringing, looking away, or general discomfort.

Psychological basis


Vicarious embarrassment, also known as empathetic embarrassment, is intrinsically linked to empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another and is considered a highly reinforcing emotion to promote selflessness, prosocial behavior,[14] and group emotion, whereas a lack of empathy is related to antisocial behavior.[17][18] During an embarrassing situation, the observer empathizes with the victim of embarrassment, assuming the feeling of embarrassment. People who have more empathy are more likely to be susceptible to vicarious embarrassment.[13] The capacity to recognize emotions is probably innate,[19] as it may be achieved unconsciously. Yet it can be trained and achieved with various degrees of intensity or accuracy.[20]


Psychological projection is a theory in psychology and psychoanalysis in which humans defend themselves against undesirable emotions by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.[21] Projection is considered a normal and common process in everyday life.[22] Vicarious embarrassment and other vicarious emotions, however, work in the reverse, a process called self-projection. The undesirable emotion is experienced in another person, and the observer projects what they interpret as the appropriate response onto themselves.[23] For example, someone who lies easily might feel vicariously embarrassed if they self-project the experience of someone getting caught in a bad lie.

Cultural significance

Embarrassing situations often arise in social situations, as the result of failing to meet a social expectation, and is used to help learn what has been deemed culturally appropriate.[24][17][5][14][22] While embarrassment isolates the victim based on a cultural bias, vicarious embarrassment is used to promote prosocial behavior between the victim and the observer.[13][6]

Cringe comedy

Main article: Cringe comedy

Embarrassing situations have been used for a long time in situational comedy, sketch comedy, dramatic irony, and practical jokes. Traditionally, laugh tracks were used to help cue the audience to laugh at appropriate times. But as laugh tracks were removed from sitcoms, embarrassing situations on television were now accompanied by silence, creating a genre known as cringe comedy,[25][26][27] which includes many critically acclaimed sitcom television shows, such as the British television series The Office.[28][11]

See also


  1. ^ Gallego, Javier (18 June 2012). "Spanish shame" (in Spanish). RTVE.
  2. ^ Albertus, Ramón (11 February 2022). "Club Caníbal, «humor negro» y 'spanish shame'". El Correo (in Spanish).
  3. ^ Wedia. "German words expats should know: Fremdschämen". IamExpat. Retrieved 2022-11-16.
  4. ^ "German Word of the Day: Fremdschämen". The Local Germany. 2018-10-04. Retrieved 2022-11-16.
  5. ^ a b Hoffman, Martin L. (1990-06-01). "Empathy and justice motivation". Motivation and Emotion. 14 (2): 151–172. doi:10.1007/BF00991641. ISSN 0146-7239. S2CID 143830768.
  6. ^ a b Williams, Kipling D. (2007). "Ostracism". Annual Review of Psychology. 58 (1): 425–452. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.58.110405.085641. PMID 16968209.
  7. ^ "The Opposite Of Schadenfreude: Vicarious Embarrassment". Retrieved 2017-12-04.
  8. ^ Curiosity. "This is why you don't like cringe comedies". RedEye Chicago. Retrieved 2017-12-06.
  9. ^ Hatfield, Elaine; Cacioppo, John T.; Rapson, Richard L. (2016-06-22). "Emotional Contagion". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2 (3): 96–100. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep10770953. S2CID 220533081.
  10. ^ Barsade, Sigal G. (2002-12-01). "The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and its Influence on Group Behavior". Administrative Science Quarterly. 47 (4): 644–675. CiteSeerX doi:10.2307/3094912. ISSN 0001-8392. JSTOR 3094912. S2CID 1397435.
  11. ^ a b Hartmann, Margaret. "The Science Behind Your Secondhand Embarrassment". Jezebel. Retrieved 2017-12-04.
  12. ^ a b Nikolić, Milica; Colonnesi, Cristina; de Vente, Wieke; Drummond, Peter; Bögels, Susan M. (2015-06-01). "Blushing and Social Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis". Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. 22 (2): 177–193. doi:10.1111/cpsp.12102. ISSN 1468-2850.
  13. ^ a b c Krach, Sören; Cohrs, Jan Christopher; Loebell, Nicole Cruz de Echeverría; Kircher, Tilo; Sommer, Jens; Jansen, Andreas; Paulus, Frieder Michel (2011-04-13). "Your Flaws Are My Pain: Linking Empathy To Vicarious Embarrassment". PLOS ONE. 6 (4): e18675. Bibcode:2011PLoSO...618675K. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018675. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 3076433. PMID 21533250.
  14. ^ a b c Feinberg, Matthew; Willer, Robb; Keltner, Dacher (January 2012). "Flustered and faithful: embarrassment as a signal of prosociality" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 102 (1): 81–97. doi:10.1037/a0025403. ISSN 1939-1315. PMID 21928915. S2CID 14251097. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-03-02.
  15. ^ Acarturk, C.; de Graaf, Ron; van Straten, A.; Have, M. Ten; Cuijpers, P. (April 2008). "Social phobia and number of social fears, and their association with comorbidity, health-related quality of life and help seeking: a population-based study" (PDF). Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 43 (4): 273–279. doi:10.1007/s00127-008-0309-1. ISSN 0933-7954. PMID 18219433. S2CID 8450876.
  16. ^ "NIMH » Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness". Retrieved 2017-12-04.
  17. ^ a b Parrott, W. Gerrod (2001). Emotions in Social Psychology: Essential Readings. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780863776823.
  18. ^ de Waal, Frans B.M. (2007-12-21). "Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy". Annual Review of Psychology. 59 (1): 279–300. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093625. ISSN 0066-4308. PMID 17550343.
  19. ^ D., Baird, James (2010). Unlock the positive potential hidden in your DNA. Nadel, Laurie, 1948-. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books. ISBN 9781601631053. OCLC 460061527.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  20. ^ O'Malley, J (1999). Teaching Empathy. America. pp. 22–26.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  21. ^ C. G., JUNG (1969). ADLER, GERHARD; HULL, R. F. C. (eds.). Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. Princeton University Press. JSTOR j.ctt5hhr4b.
  22. ^ a b Wade, Carole; Tavris, Carol (2002). Psychology. Prentice Hall. ISBN 9780130982636. wade psychology.
  23. ^ Mills, Jon (2013-02-01). "Jung's metaphysics". International Journal of Jungian Studies. 5 (1): 19–43. doi:10.1080/19409052.2012.671182. ISSN 1940-9052.
  24. ^ "The Psychology of Embarrassment". World of Psychology. 2012-11-14. Archived from the original on 2016-12-07. Retrieved 2017-12-04.
  25. ^ "Funny Business". tribunedigital-chicagotribune. Retrieved 2017-12-06.
  26. ^ "With 'Office,' NBC Goes Off the Beaten Laugh Track (". Retrieved 2017-12-04.
  27. ^ "Don't Like Cringe Comedies? You Probably Have Fremdscham". Archived from the original on 2017-12-08. Retrieved 2017-12-06.
  28. ^ "The Office, "Duel" & 30 Rock, "Flu Shot": Silent but deadly". Retrieved 2017-12-04.